Bush signs Homeland Security law

Sweeping reorganization likely to take years, but first steps due by March;

Ridge nominated for top job; 22 agencies or portions to be consolidated in bid to block terrorism attacks

By David L. Greene
Sun National Staff
Originally published November 26, 2002

WASHINGTON - Setting in motion the broadest reshuffling of the federal government in 55 years, President Bush signed legislation yesterday creating a Department of Homeland Security and named former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the agency's first secretary. "The threat of mass murder on our own soil will be met with a unified, effective response," Bush vowed at a White House ceremony. The event culminated months of debate in Congress over how much flexibility the president will have to shift around and reassign the new Cabinet-level department's 170,000 employees, at the expense of some labor protections. The president acknowledged the daunting task facing Ridge, who must consolidate all or portions of 22 disparate agencies - from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Immigration and Naturalization Service - and then make them perform effectively and efficiently together.

Bush said Ridge's job will be "immense" as he seeks to "change the culture of many diverse agencies, directing all of them toward the principal objective of protecting the American people."  Critics say one of Ridge's greatest challenges will be leading a department that is to defend against international terrorism when the country's two pre-eminent intelligence agencies - the FBI and CIA - remain independent. Many lawmakers contended that bureaucratic bungling by those agencies might have kept them from anticipating the Sept. 11 attacks and called for their inclusion in the department.

For months after the attacks, the president opposed efforts in Congress to create the department. But in June, as momentum built for the proposal, Bush switched gears, embracing the idea and formulating his own blueprint. In doing so, he said he was concerned that the country did not have a coordinated homeland defense and that federal employees with portions of that responsibility were inefficiently scattered across the government.

Bush vigorously lobbied Congress to approve the department and made it an issue in this year's midterm elections. As he stumped the nation for fellow Republicans, he complained that Democrats were trying to block urgent legislation needed to protect the country. Democrats, in fact, overwhelmingly supported the agency. The snag was the president's demand for power to suspend labor protections in the new department, including the right to unionize, if he deemed an employee's job critical to national security. In the aftermath of Election Day, which gave Republicans control of the House, Senate and White House, Democrats grudgingly agreed to a compromise that essentially gave Bush the power he wanted, with some restrictions.

Bush recognized union representatives attending the signing ceremony and said he would "make sure that your people are treated fairly in this new department."

Long transition

Even under the most optimistic timetable for its outfitting, the agency will be slogging through a period of transition as the nation continues to face serious threats of terrorism. White House officials earlier yesterday said it might take up to two years for the new department - which encompasses agencies with a cumulative annual budget totaling $40 billion - to be fully operational. But an administration reorganization plan, released later in the day, displayed a greater sense of urgency, calling for some agencies - including the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Transportation Safety Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency - to be transferred by March 1 and for the department to be fully set up by September.

It has not been decided whether the department's disparate elements will move into a single building or remain where they are - but business groups in Washington and in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs have already begun lobbying to have a new government building constructed in their communities. No reorganization this substantial has taken place in the federal government since 1947 when President Harry S. Truman signed legislation to create the Department of Defense. In nominating Ridge, the president turns to a popular former governor and congressman who has spent a rocky year as Bush's homeland security adviser inside the White House. Ridge will have to be confirmed by the Senate, but little opposition is expected.

A rough start

Ridge, 57, did not always appear comfortable or confident in his White House job, especially in the early days as he sought to reassure a jittery public after the Sept. 11 attacks. And the color-coded terrorism alert system he established was greeted by some with ridicule. In recent months, however, he has received praise for providing effective liaison between the federal government and state and local officials. And he was Bush's point man in powering the homeland security bill through Congress. In tapping Ridge, the president called him "the right man for this new and great responsibility."

Ridge is considered a savvy politician, but not a sharp-elbowed bureaucrat - a quality some analysts believe he will need to persuade the historically turf-conscious heads of the various agencies who now become his lieutenants to work as a team. "Has Ridge shown himself to be a skilled bureaucratic infighter? Not so far," said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This is a low-key guy who has not conveyed to the American people that everything is under control," Korb said. Ridge is in a tough spot, Korb said, because he and his department will likely be held accountable if the nation is attacked again. Reflecting that concern, Bush said: "In a free and open society, no department of government can completely guarantee our safety against ruthless killers who move and plot in shadows."

Ridge echoed Bush in an interview on CNN, saying his department would do "everything humanly and technologically possible" to prevent terrorists from attacking. But, he added, "We can't guarantee a fail-safe system. We have to be right a thousand times a day forever. They have to be right every once in a while."

Politician, businessman

Bush called on Navy Secretary Gordon England, a Baltimore native and University of Maryland graduate, to serve as deputy homeland security secretary. Before taking his Navy post, England was executive vice president at General Dynamics, a Virginia defense contractor. Kendell Pease, one of England's colleagues at General Dynamics, said that "the best way to deal with huge egos is not to have one yourself - and that's England." Pease called England a good complement to Ridge. "You've got the career politician and the career businessman," he said.  The president also nominated Asa Hutchinson, a Republican former congressman from Arkansas who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration, to be the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security. As the 22 federal agencies prepare to join the new department, they will face new tasks.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, will soon begin training passenger airline pilots to carry weapons inside cockpits if they volunteer to do so. A provision giving them that option was included in the bill creating the new agency, over the objections of some lawmakers who said armed pilots could put passengers at risk.