With US on alert, Ridge lacks clout

The buzz about new terrorist attacks raises calls for afull-fledged agency.

WASHINGTON – These are the times the Office of Homeland Security was created for – a rising level of warning over terrorist activity as intelligence officials report portentous chatter among terror organizations similar to that before 9/11.

But confidence in the office – and Tom Ridge, its chief – is weak. A rising Washington chorus sees his office as a public relations tool with little clout in key turf battles.

So there's new momentum, inside and outside the White House, to give the office – created hastily in the shock of the 9/11 attacks – a more muscular profile by transforming it into a separate cabinet agency far bigger than Ridge's small advisory office.

The basic problem is that "Ridge hasn't been able to establish himself as the go-to guy on homeland security," says Paul Light, a Brookings Institution government expert. And while adding departments willy-nilly isn't good, "every once in a while a new organization really is the answer."

Given the gravity of the problem, this may be the time for a new agency. Though critics warn that a lumbering new bureaucracy could actually weaken security.

The new fuel on this fire is controversy over pre-9/11 hints of Al Qaeda plans that weren't acted on by the White House – creating a demand for effective coordination.

There's a basic perception that Ridge hasn't succeeded in his job. His creation of a color-coded alert system, for instance, has been mocked – though it was criticism of vague government warnings that sparked creation of the alert levels. The limits of the system were seen, for instance, in the absence of an alert despite this weekend's revelations by Vice President Dick Cheney of a spike in chatter among Al Qaeda operatives. Several months before Sept. 11, intelligence agencies picked up similar activity.

Also, Ridge's basic mission is to tame the many-headed beast of government homeland-security efforts. Lack of coordination can be devastating – as demonstrated by the FBI's pre-9/11 failure to fuse concerns in Phoenix and Minnesota about Middle Eastern men training in flight schools.

Weak stature

Given Ridge's weak stature, Mr. Light wonders if he would have even heard about the FBI suspicions had he been in the job before 9/11.

"Would he have been able to pull some great lever to make the government wake up?" Light thinks not. "My sense is that he is ... as powerless today as he would have been then to force the bureaucracy [to act]."

The momentum for change also comes from some fundamental forces. First, there's the tension between branches of government. Congress wants oversight of homeland security, which it would get with a full-blown agency – and does not have over Ridge, whose office is contained within the White House.

The White House's recent refusal to allow Ridge to formally testify before Congress has only boosted desire for oversight.

Several bills are pending that would create an independent department. Sponsors include Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Rep. Jane Harman (D) of California, and Rep. Ernest Istook (R) of Oklahoma. Members of Congress argue their prodding will spur key players toward swift and sustained action. Skeptics argue that Congress – with its cacophony of opinions – will only gum up the works.

If Congress gets involved, there's the danger that "you lose flexibility" and the ability to "move quickly," says John Samples of the libertarian Cato Institute here.

Another fundamental force is a basic difference of philosophy. Republicans tend to distrust the federal government as the solution to society's ills. Democrats – a la Franklin Roosevelt – tend to see Washington and bureaucracy as the answer.

Copernican perspective

Ridge has lately been comparing himself to Copernicus – the 16th century sage who first declared that Earth isn't the center of the universe.

He argues, likewise, that Washington isn't the center of the homeland-security universe. It's the people on the front line, such as a local cop or an FBI agent – not a Washington bureaucrat – who may sniff something suspicious and stymie a terrorist attack, he contends.

People outside Washington tend to agree. Ridge's office is "doing great," says Florida domestic security chief Steve Lauer. All Mr. Lauer says he needs is "information and funding" – and Ridge has been helpful on both counts.

Yet with ongoing concerns about attacks, there's growing desire in Washington to try everything possible.

White House Budget chief Mitch Daniels recently told senators the homeland-security structure "may evolve over time" and hinted it might include a cabinet department.

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card has reportedly told a group of staffers to fix the Ridge problem.

Yet even boosters of a new agency admit that designing it will be hugely complicated – the same kinds of concerns and doubts raised when Ridge's post was created and the status quo pecking order of powerful government agencies was in question. For instance, the Coast Guard is crucial to homeland-security. But roughly 75 percent of its duties have nothing to do with the topic. This is true for many other agencies.

"That's the thing about homeland security – it transcends all elements of American society, including federal, state, and local governments, so throwing it all under one umbrella could hugely complicate things," says Jack Spencer of the conservative Heritage Foundation here. On the other hand, he says, "If it has its own bureaucracy, maybe it will be able to pull everything together."

All in all, observers point out, it took decades to create the post-World War II national security structure that integrates the Defense Department, the State Department, and the White House National Security Council. So perfecting the homeland-security architecture will take time, too.

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