It now appears that Washington's reaction to the events of Sept. 11 may represent the most intense period of self-examination and reorganization since the existing national-security bureaucracy was created after World War II.
President Bush's establishment today of a new cabinet-level homeland security agency is only the latest in a string of changes that began when Congress passed the "Patriot USA" security act last year. The government reaction now also includes an FBI reorganization, and the beginning of congressional inquiries into what the government might have done to prevent horrendous Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.
Shuffling organizational boxes and adding zeroes to budget figures may not in and of itself make the nation safer. As the country found out after President Truman created the modern Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency, it is the small and continued actions of thousands of men and women that make a new arm of government successful or not.
Dave McIntyre, deputy director of the Anser Institute of Homeland Security in Washington, says that Bush's reorganization aimed at creating the new cabinet security post is at least a step in the right direction because it's a reaction to lessons learned. "The Department of Defense regularly reorganizes. It's a sign of progress, not failure," says Dr. McIntyre. "Hopefully it will contribute to a renewed sense of momentum on the issue."
The White House bills its new agency as part and parcel of a government attempting to shift itself from peacetime to a wartime footing. Officials who briefed reporters on its makeup made a point of emphasizing that the change had been in the works for months, in an attempt to head off criticism that the move was timed to counteract the recent series of leaks about what the FBI and the CIA knew, and when they knew it, and how they didn't share it with each other.
The new agency won't have spies of its own. It will be a "customer" of the CIA and FBI, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Its primary job will be to help these other agencies connect the dots of their intelligence information.
It will have divisions focusing on border security, emergency preparedness, and weapons of mass destruction, among other things. "This announcement is so much bigger than any of the noise between the level threes," said Mr. Fleischer, referring to the anonymous sniping between third-level CIA and FBI officials that has been occurring through the press in recent days.
Some outside analysts believe at least the timing of the announcement is an attempt to counter disclosures about possible intelligence failures. They point out that Thursday also marked the appearance behind the closed doors of a Senate committee of Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis-based FBI agent who has charged that senior officials fumbled an opportunity to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks by investigating the background of Zacarias Moussaoui, a flight student arrested in Minnesota in August, 2001.
Criticism of the FBI and CIA has not been limited to Democrats. Senior Republicans, including Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, have questioned whether the government's antiterror effort was in disarray prior to last fall. Thus one might call the new cabinet office "the Office of Damage Control," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "The administration wants to change the subject and try to get ahead of the story."
Others reserve judgement, saying that the key question is not why the office was established now, but how it effects the fight on terror in the months ahead.
Similar umbrella agencies have both worked, and not worked, in the past, note experts. Umbrella organizations such as the National Security Council have proved most effective when they have strong leadership that is interested in coordinating and synthesizing the efforts of other departments more than in imposing its own views and will. "When you're doing a conglomerate like this, the big issue is how do you create a shared sense of culture," says Paul Light, a government expert at Washington's Brookings Institution.
Nor does the sudden establishment of a new layer of bureaucracy automatically ensure cooperation and coordination among competing agencies. The nation's "drug czar" has had difficulty getting such agencies as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI to work together. The position, which is not a cabinet post, doesn't really have the power to order anyone to do want it wants.
"The effectiveness of this new cabinet official will depend on how [the position] is defined," says Lee Colwell, a former associate director of the FBI and now director of the Center for Society, Law, and Justice at the University of New Orleans.
Staff writers Abraham McLaughlin, Howard LaFranchi, and Jeff McCrehan contributed to this report.