New US security mantra: keep bad guys out

Emerging plans for the Homeland Security Department focus on border and transportation issues.

It may be the biggest reorganization of government since 1947, but President Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department – which Congress continues to hash over this week – is, at its core, simply a plan to try to gain ironclad control of America's borders, ports, and airports.

Of the department's 170,000 expected employees, more than 90 percent will handle border and transportation security – controlling who travels in the country and what they take with them. And more than 60 percent of its projected $37.5 billion budget for 2003 will go toward border, port, and airport security.

These facts highlight a homeland-security philosophy that aims to "keep the bad guys out" – which some observers say may not be proactive enough, since it won't attempt to disrupt terrorist plots hatched overseas. Yet on a practical level, it reflects a calculation by the Bush team that only so much reorganization is possible at once – and that merging all or part of other agencies such as the CIA or FBI simply isn't doable ... yet.

"It's a 'circle the wagons' approach to homeland security," says Paul Light, a government expert at the Brookings Institution here. But the problem, he says, is that it doesn't deal with "upstream" issues – such as "who's putting bad things into cargo containers in overseas ports."

Indeed, the new agency will rely entirely on intelligence from other agencies to determine what counterterror steps it will take, a fact that concerns many members of Congress. The worry is that if the CIA and FBI don't share their data, the new agency could be severely hampered.

Bureaucratic reality

Still, the bureaucratic reality, says Mr. Light, is that "there's no way the CIA and FBI would give up their eyes and ears to a fledgling new department."

Despite these limits, many observers see the department as an important first step. "The big, big core of this agency is border patrol, and that's a good idea, because we've had historically a really fragmented situation at the borders," says Elaine Kamarck, who headed Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" initiative. Compared to other homeland security tasks, she says, "Everything else is trivial."

By combining the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, and visa-granting authority under one roof, the goal is to have tight control over the people and goods entering America.

Trade-off between security and trade

Still, the newly merged agencies will have to deal with many long-unresolved issues. One is finding the right balance between keeping commerce moving and keeping close watch over the nation's borders. Some businesses worry that the Customs Service, in particular, will become obsessed with homeland security and lose its traditional emphasis on facilitating trade. Currently Customs processes some 50,000 trucks and containers – and 500 oceangoing ships – every day.

"Having a slowdown at ports of entry would be a huge problem" and – because of just-in-time delivery – "could mean shutting down assembly lines" if goods don't get through quickly, says Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council here. There's a risk, he says, of creating "a deeper recession than we have now."

Tighter rein on immigrant workers

There's also the enduring tension between strict enforcement of immigration laws and businesses' need for cheap labor. Before Sept. 11, Mr. Bush had been contemplating an amnesty package for Mexican immigrants for economic reasons, a move that also would have helped him with Hispanic voters. But now the concern about preventing another terrorist attack is forcing stricter scrutiny of immigrants of all kinds.

Simply merging border-related departments won't solve these issues. That's why a measured approach – that allows time to work out the many complications – makes sense, says Dave McIntyre of the Anser Institute of Homeland Security, a think tank.

He points out that many in America "knew on Dec. 8, 1941," that intelligence and defense agencies had to be reorganized after their failure to stop the Pearl Harbor attack. Yet the complicated reshuffle didn't occur during the war – indeed not until 1947. Likewise, he says, today's restructuring needs to proceed with "deliberate" speed.

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