Turf's Up, at the Border

Homeland Security director Tom Ridge has a daunting task: He must work with some 80 federal entities to tighten security against terrorist attacks in the US. Since his post was created after Sept. 11, the inter-agency turf battles have intensified as the agencies dicker over who should have jurisdiction in a new government security order.

News that the Bush administration is considering combining three agencies – Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Border Patrol – under one umbrella in order to streamline and enhance border security might just exacerbate tensions, if not cause further problems. Simply shifting federal agencies around could create the sort of bloated bureaucracies that Mr. Ridge surely wants to (and should) avoid.

Pressure to show Americans the government's doing all it can to stop terrorists can confound a methodical, careful effort to make progress in the security arena.

Customs alone has more than 20,000 employees. The 35,000 worker-strong (including the Border Patrol) INS, still smarting from the embarrassing revelation that it sent a routine notification of visa approval for two of the 9/11 hijackers, has obvious administrative issues of its own. It is charged with both letting visitors in and keeping people out. That's a double assignment that fights itself.

How can this, and future proposed combinations, better serve, for instance, the president's interest in making agencies more accountable? Or help reduce the size of government?

Small steps – not dramatic, sweeping change – should be the operating principle here. So should lean, effective reductions and combinations that create better, not worse, communication. Ridge and the agencies in question need to prove that their efforts won't be just another example of form follows function, or vice versa.

The timing of such a move bears scrutiny, too. Would it be smarter for now to just split the INS in two, one for servicing visitors, another for enforcing immigration laws? Then it might be clearer how to blend those parts with related agencies.

Creating a superagency likely will prompt congressional scrutiny. When the bureaucratic dust settles, Ridge may feel pressure to "reorganize" once again, especially if his role as domestic security coordinator is given cabinet-level authority by Congress.

The Bush White House must move carefully in reordering government in the midst of a war on terrorism.

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