WASHINGTON -- In creating a giant new Cabinet department to defend the United States from terrorist attacks, President Bush is hoping to solve several problems at once -- some real, some bureaucratic, some merely political.
The president's decision was a tacit admission that the 8-month-old experiment of coordinating homeland security from a small office in the White House wasn't working. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, with only a few assistants and no authority over anyone else's budget, found that existing federal agencies responded slowly, if at all, to his commands.
When anthrax spores turned up in the nation's mail system, Ridge had a hard time getting health agencies to coordinate their actions. When the Pentagon decided to cut back on patrol flights over the nation's cities, Ridge didn't learn about it until after the planes landed.
"Ridge didn't have the authority to command action from anyone," said Paul C. Light of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "As a Vietnam veteran, he must have felt as if they had given him another war to fight without the tools to win it."
But now, if Ridge becomes the first secretary of homeland security, he'll have almost 170,000 people and more than $37 billion at his command.
"Cabinet status is the coin of the realm in this town," Light said. "It determines how you're treated. It determines the size of your car and how quickly your phone calls are returned."
There are political considerations too. White House aides have openly worried that the public is no longer as focused on the danger of terrorism as it was in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. They have watched glumly as public confidence in the federal anti-terrorism effort has sagged (although Bush's own popularity rating has remained strong).
"When we ask whether people believe the government is doing enough to protect them against terrorism, we've seen a surge in the number who don't know if anything real is being done," Republican pollster Bill McInturff said. "There's a communications job to do, and it's probably easier to do as a Cabinet secretary. The first function of the homeland security job was reassurance, but now it's partly to remind the country of the need to stay focused and do more."
The controversy over apparent missteps by the FBI and the CIA in handling intelligence about terrorist threats wasn't helping. "If you think the intelligence story didn't affect this decision, you're kidding yourself," a GOP political adviser said.
Indeed, the president referred to the intelligence inquiries during his brief television speech Thursday evening, asking FBI and CIA officials to treat information about possible terrorist attacks "with the seriousness it deserves" and telling the two agencies: "They must think and act differently to defeat the enemy."
Still, both Republicans and Democrats, noting the unexpected sweep of Bush's proposal, were inclined to give him credit for making this decision largely on the basis of substance, not politics. The new Department of Homeland Security would be the third largest in the Cabinet and would include some of the crown jewels of much older agencies, such as the Secret Service and the Customs Service (from the Treasury Department) and the Coast Guard (from the Department of Transportation).
In that sense, Bush's declaration that he was proposing the most significant reorganization of the federal government since 1947 -- when President Truman unified the Defense Department and created the National Security Council and the CIA to fight the Cold War -- rang true.
"When a society faces a fundamentally new mission, it makes sense to create a new agency," said David Osborne, a Democrat who advised then-President Clinton on ways to reorganize the federal government. "We did that with the Defense Department in 1947 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Now the mission is protecting the homeland, but Ridge had an impossible job -- doing that mission without any operational control.
"By creating one agency with responsibility for an issue, you heighten the issue's profile. You centralize your resources. So the people in charge have more leverage and a better chance to carry out your strategy effectively," he said.
But some experts on the federal bureaucracy warned that creating a new Cabinet department brings problems too.
"There's a public administration rule of thumb: When you're creating a new agency, do something that's easy to undo," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who advised Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. "A Cabinet department is pretty much forever. But we don't know if this danger from terrorism will be a permanent condition."
Bush and his aides acknowledged that it came hard for small-government Republicans to create a gigantic new agency -- in terms of budget and staff size, the third-largest in the government, after the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. But they promised to try to use the consolidation of security functions to keep spending under control.
Hess and Light saw one more problem with the new department. "It's a real smorgasbord," Hess said.
"It's going to be hard to make it work," Light warned. "You have at least two cultures there. You have customer-oriented, people-helping agencies like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). And you have law enforcement agencies like the Customs Service and the Transportation Security Agency. It's going to be hard to get them together."
And consolidation doesn't always mean improvement, Light warned. "FEMA is one of the best-run agencies in the government. If it ain't broke, don't move it," he said.
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