Homeland bureaucracy

President George W. Bush’s plan for a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security was perhaps the inevitable result of the watershed events of Sept. 11. To the extent this new department addresses the communication breakdown and administrative failures that allowed that disaster to happen, its creation will be part of a fitting legacy for that day. A voice for homeland defense in Cabinet meetings, for example, is a necessary supplement to the Defense and State department representatives whose national security specialties do not traditionally reach screening airport security guards or planning for poisons spread through the mail.

But a crisis should never silence criticism, and although members of Congress are lining up to protect their pet projects and the agencies they oversee, a disinterested look at the plan itself should always be at the center of the debate.

Consolidating a multitude of federal agencies working at different objectives and sometimes cross purposes is a monumental task. In undertaking this project, the president must avoid the temptation to simply draw lines on an administrative flow chart and assume lumping these bureaucratic diaspora under the same agency name will end recurring conflicts, agency rivalries and territoriality.

Teaching old agencies new tricks, or at least to perform their old tricks for different reasons, requires a bottom-up look at what each agency’s role in the war on terrorism will be and how its function will be different in the new Cabinet department. This is particularly true when agencies have overlapping programs of action. Those operations must either be consigned to one agency or coordinated by reliable and specifically defined channels of command, communication and responsibility. Any less-focused approach merely begs for the continuation of the status quo.

It is understandable, of course, that the president is under political pressure not only to create the agency but to create it in ways that avoid interfering with the priorities of congressional members or their oversight committees. But designing an agency whose mission will be to save the rest of the nation from the World Trade Center’s fate must not become a political game of chicken. The consequences of political gamesmanship producing a poor allocation in an obscure section of the national budget are less significant and more readily correctable than a politically inspired error in designing national security.

Finally, the same superbureaucracy that can produce inefficiency and miscommunication carries the ability to not only infringe citizens’ basic rights but also to hide the evidence of those violations amid complex chains of command, endless paperwork and classified operations. Particularly if domestic investigations and law enforcement becomes a priority for agencies such as the CIA, whose principal focus has historically been inquiring into someone else’s country, the civil liberties concerns that have emerged since Sept. 11 (see Daily editorial, April 19) should be emphasized even more as the reason, after all, the president has a homeland worth defending.