The Ridgepole of Security

Bringing 22 federal agencies together with the laserlike purpose of combating terrorists will begin today with the president's signing of a bill to set up the Department of Homeland Security.

Passage of this measure in Congress, which was difficult enough and took too long, may seem like the easy part compared to ensuring this bureaucracy of 170,000 workers actually does its job.

President Bush is expected to nominate his homeland security adviser, Tom Ridge, to administer the new department. The former governor of Pennsylvania would bring much experience and many skills to the task, but he'll need plenty of support from equally able deputies. Congress, too, should provide any additional support and avoid turning the department's early record into political football.

It took almost a decade for the Pentagon to function well after its creation in 1947. And the General Accounting Office warns this new department will be a multiyear project.

The essential task is to quickly set up a process to sift through all the information that these agencies collect to spot any terrorist-related activity, and then act to counter it. The FBI and CIA were left out of the department, and they will need to be as cooperative as possible in sharing intelligence reports.

At the same time, the department's primary focus on terrorism should not lead to an erosion of the many other services its constituent agencies have traditionally performed. The Customs Service still needs to keep shipments moving in and out of the US. Visas must be issued, food safety still needs checking, and so on.

The political pressures on the department, reflected through lobbies on Congress, will be tremendous. Just look as how the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines still battle one another on the Hill.

Like iron filings on a magnet sheet, however, the homeland security department's various parts can line up in common purpose to protect Americans from another terrorist attack.

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