Help wanted

December 02, 2004

ADMINISTRATOR, lobbyist, public communicator urgently needed to take over unwieldy conglomeration of 22 federal agencies and make it function as a single unit overseeing protection of the homefront.

A successful candidate for secretary of homeland security must be able to hold his or her ground in turf battles with other Cabinet chiefs -- notably the attorney general, defense secretary and director of central intelligence -- to keep the Department of Homeland Security from being marginalized.

At the same time, the homeland security secretary must be able to slice through the parochialism of Congress, insisting that resources for police, fire and rescue services be directed to communities according to their likelihood of becoming terrorist targets instead of the clout of their lawmakers.

Further, the ideal nominee would have an instinct for how to convey to department staff and all involved in homeland security the difference between useful precautions and overzealous bullying.

A key part of this mission should be to eliminate, for example, security checkpoints on city streets that merely obstruct traffic, and airline passenger searches that allow women to be groped.

Finally, but perhaps most important, a high premium is placed on a potential homeland security secretary who can share with the American people as much information as possible about potential dangers -- whether from terrorists or natural disasters -- in a way that instills confidence rather than fear.

Warnings that something bad might happen sometime, somewhere, with instructions to stock up on batteries and bottled water, do more harm than good.

Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary, who is vacating the job after two inglorious years, failed to meet many of the above qualifications.

He seemed well-intentioned but bumbling, got rolled by other Cabinet members as well as Congress, and has failed to set a tone that strikes the appropriate balance between security and freedom. His tenure will doubtless be best remembered for those silly color-coded alerts that were so utterly useless they should never be repeated.

To be fair, Mr. Ridge took on a thankless bureaucratic task at a time when the nation was still so stunned by the Sept. 11 attacks it was difficult to know exactly what was expected of him. Further, he never had the authority or the resources to take full command of his mission.

His successor's task will require not only seizing such control, but moving homeland security into areas so far neglected or avoided: secure but manageable borders, smarter port security, humane but thorough immigration control, protection of utilities and chemical plants.

What's more, this isn't a solo venture. Congress and the Bush administration will have to give the homeland security chief the authority and support he or she needs, or at least get out of the way.

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