Department gets rolling

a bigger task may lie ahead

Security: New chief will face the daunting job of making disparate agencies operate as one to prevent terrorism.


December 01, 2004|By David L. Greene and Laura Sullivan | David L. Greene and Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - By one important measure, Tom Ridge has had a successful run as the nation's homeland security chief: There has not been a major terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001. And yet, Ridge might be better known to Americans as the man who launched a color-coded alert system that became the butt of jokes on late-night television.

Ridge learned the hard way that keeping the country terrorism-free brought little glory and was no guarantee of a smooth ride. From the start, he faced bureaucratic turf fights and confusion over which congressional committees had oversight over the many agencies gathered under his department's umbrella.

He seemed, at times, uncertain when he tried to play dual roles, announcing vague new threats against the country while trying to calm citizens. And his terror warning system drew criticism, ranging from charges that it left Americans uncertain about how they should respond to "orange alerts" to accusations that the Bush administration was using the system to manipulate public opinion.

Given the challenge he faced in combining 22 disparate agencies, Ridge will leave the department with an accomplished record, analysts say. In nearly two years on the job, he got a huge bureaucracy on its feet.

His successor, they say, could face a tougher task. The new chief must take on the less dramatic - but more formidable - challenge of getting the department to operate smoothly as one command post with a single mission, to prevent acts of terrorism on American soil.

James Jay Carafano, a senior defense and homeland security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, credited Ridge with implementing a tall order from Congress to create the vast agency.

"No critics have said it is not a well-run agency or questioned Ridge's leadership," he said.

But Ridge had his hands tied, Carafano added, by dozens of congressional committees with authority over one or several of his department's component agencies. Ridge's successor will operate in the same harsh climate, while being forced to make perhaps even harder decisions about how to improve the department's organization.

"Thanks to Ridge, the successor is not going to have to find his or her office or his or her in-box," Carafano said. "But in any merger, one of the first things to do after signing the contracts is to figure out what you screwed up. Now will be the time to ask, is the department organized to do the mission it was given? If you don't do that now, things get stuck in concrete."

In announcing his departure yesterday, Ridge spoke about the enormity of the job and its challenges.

"In a department where we've had to move so quickly and change so rapidly, the notion that there might be some people out there that are still a little uncomfortable with it is not surprising to me," Ridge said.

Pressure comes with the post, he said, repeating a theme he and President Bush have often invoked. "We have to be right a billion-plus times a year," Ridge said, while "the terrorists only have to be right once."

Looking ahead

Analysts said Ridge's successor will have to begin by stepping back and rethinking the department's organization. For example, do its five undersecretaries have the proper areas of authority, or should their fiefdoms and missions be changed?

Ridge's replacement will almost certainly have to appeal to Congress to simplify its oversight of the department. More than 80 committees and subcommittees, each with a different chairman and different interests, have stakes in various offices of homeland security.

The new secretary must also try to fuse the technologies of the various agencies. One of the biggest challenges will be to get the US-VISIT program running nationwide, putting a system in place to help immigration officials track visitors to the country.

Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service who has been studying the department since it was created by Congress, said Ridge had little time to begin these tasks.

"They don't even have a good head count of how many people work there yet," Light said.

Light noted that it took 40 years to get the Pentagon to operate as one entity, though even today the Defense Department is beset by competing interests and authorities. The Department of Energy, which was established in 1977 by merging other agencies, is still struggling to work as one, he said.

The Homeland Security Department "was and still is the most complicated organizational merger in modern history, be it private or public," Light said. "There are a lot of battles to be fought on Capitol Hill over appropriations, a lot of battles to be fought about the one-face-at-the-border idea. A merger is just never a finished thing, especially when it is this complicated."

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