New homeland security agency faces rough road

President Bush is on the verge of winning Washington's political battle over shaping a new government agency in response to the 9/11 attacks. But a central question remains: Will a new department of homeland security make Americans safer than they are now?

The basic answer: It's a complicated step that will probably help in the long term. Yet the creation of a single agency can't immediately - if ever - fill the gaps in the US security regime.

The department will be a collection of 22 federal agencies with 170,000 employees - making it second in size only to the Pentagon. It will also stand as a symbol of Mr. Bush's newfound political potency - something three centrist senators, who had been fighting for certain workers' rights in the new department, acknowledged this week when they gave up most of what they were fighting for.

But simply forging a new agency doesn't guarantee Washington will meet the nation's most pressing homeland security needs, which still include:

• Ensuring state, federal, and local law-enforcement and emergency departments talk to each other - including on radios tuned into the same frequencies.

• Getting training and equipment - such as hazardous-materials suits or radiation detectors - into the right hands, whether it be at a local or at a federal level.

• Stretching limited resources to protect everything from oil pipelines to airports.

All in all, "It's going to take years to get this thing right, but you've got to start somewhere," says Philip Anderson, a homeland-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

One of the biggest unresolved issues, according to a recent report by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, is getting local law-enforcement and emergency crews ready to help prevent - or respond to - attacks.

They need more gear, more training, and more access to information, including classified data, the report says. But in the rush for funding for new equipment and training, there's a risk that smaller city and county departments will be elbowed aside by state agencies.

Indeed, in North Miami Beach, Fla., Police Chief Bill Berger has been frustrated by the politics of homeland-security funding. He points out that all the new top-quality hazardous-materials suits - the ones that look like astronaut gear - were sent to the state capital of Tallahassee up north. Big cities down south, meanwhile, received third-class suits that are "glorified gas masks." He hopes the new federal department will help balance these inequities.

On communications, one big issue is whether state and local police will continue to operate in what the Hart-Rudman report calls "a counterterrorism information vacuum." Even at the federal level, the CIA and FBI are likely to be reluctant to share their best data with the department of homeland security (DHS) - especially if turns around and shares it with state and local agencies. That's an age-old issue that won't be solved by the creation of a new agency.

A more pressing issue is streamlining radio frequencies. Law-enforcement and emergency-services departments in most cities use different channels. The tangle will have to be solved by the Federal Communications Commission - not the DHS.

Likewise, there's an industry-sponsored plan to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor oil pipelines and other potential targets. The military and CIA have used these flying drones successfully in Afghanistan. But putting unarmed drones into US skies would require approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, not the DHS.

Meanwhile, the department's first and biggest task will be to meld all its separate parts into one whole. This will include everything from figuring out if all 170,000 workers will wear the same uniforms to streamlining computer databases to hammering out union-related work rules, which were the subject of dispute on Capitol Hill until now.

If history is any guide, this process will take several years - as it did with NASA and the Energy Department.

Meanwhile on the frontlines of America's homeland-security battles, some are skeptical that the agency will have an immediate impact. "There's still going to be a maze within the agency," says Fire Chief Dan Sanders of Des Moines, Iowa. "Unless they streamline the funding so the little guys can get to the talent and resources," he says, "a big new agency won't be very helpful."

Linda Feldmann in Washington contributed to this report.

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