Bush Signs Bill Creating Homeland Security Department

W By Vicki Kemper

wASHINGTON – President Bush signed legislation Monday creating a Department of Homeland Security and nominated former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as its secretary, officially setting in motion the reorganization of the federal government around an anti-terrorism mission.

Monday’s ceremony marked the beginning of what will likely be a long, messy and contentious process of creating a new bureaucracy from a score of separate agencies, many with long and proud histories.

“It’s going to take years to integrate all these different entities into an efficient and effective organization,” said David M. Walker, head of the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress. The top priority, he said, must be “the people dimension.”

And “it’s not just about having top-flight leadership,” Walker added. “It’s also recognizing that you’ve got 170,000 dedicated public servants, and reaching out to them, giving them some identity that binds them together.”

Also evident was the bitter residue of the public battle over workers’ rights in the new department.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing the roughly 10,000 federal employees who guard the nation’s borders, predicted that agents would soon leave the agency in droves.

“Nobody wants to work in an environment where you can be fired at will,” he said, adding that labor difficulties could reduce security at the nation’s borders.

“Computers don’t catch people. Cameras don’t catch people. People catch people,” he said.

The seriousness of the problem has not been lost on secretary-nominee Ridge, who until now has been director of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

One of his biggest challenges, he said in an interview Monday, is to “relieve the anxiety of the many good men and women” who will work for the new department. “We can’t be successful without them.”

Ridge said he had already begun reaching out to the federal employees’ unions. He invited leaders of the two largest unions to the bill-signing ceremony, and they agreed to meet again in a couple of weeks to discuss how to win over a huge, now somewhat disempowered, segment of the federal work force.

“At the end of the day, homeland security and job security are compatible,” Ridge said.

The White House Monday sent Congress an 18-page transition plan that calls for most of the constituent agencies to join the new department on March 1.

The merger will bring together such diverse agencies as the Coast Guard and the Secret Service. When the merger of all 22 agencies is complete–a process expected to take at least a year–the department’s 170,000 employees will rank it third in the government, behind the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

“We are taking historic action to defend the United States and protect our citizens against the dangers of a new era,” said Bush, who was flanked in the White House East Room by several members of Congress.

The bill-signing signaled an end, at least for now, to a partisan power struggle between Bush and congressional Democrats. For months, the president had opposed Democratic efforts to create a Cabinet-level anti-terrorism agency.

After Bush embraced the idea and offered his own plan, Democrats resisted–until their crushing defeat in this month’s elections–his demand for broad powers to hire, fire and relocate the department’s employees. In the end, Bush clearly prevailed.

The reorganization plan sets an ambitious timetable.

On Jan. 24, the office of the secretary, which includes the deputy secretary and up to 33 undersecretaries and other top officers, will be established.

In addition to Ridge, whom Bush called “the right man for this new and great responsibility,” the president named two other top officials Monday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Navy Secretary Gordon England will become deputy secretary. A former vice president of General Dynamics Corp., England brings a strong business background, which many outside experts have said the new department should have.

Asa Hutchinson, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, was Bush’s choice for undersecretary for border and transportation security.

On March 1, joining the new department will be: the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Transportation Security Administration, portions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service.

On June 1, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on Long Island, N.Y., will officially transfer from the Agriculture Department to Homeland Security.

By Sept. 1, any remaining transfers will be completed.

The department will be divided into four broad divisions.

The information analysis and infrastructure protection unit will assess intelligence information from the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency and work with state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as private operators of utilities, energy facilities and other potential targets, to prepare for and respond to potential attacks.

Although intelligence failures and a lack of communication between the FBI and CIA preceded the Sept. 11 attacks, those agencies will not join the new department. Nevertheless, Ridge said he was “very, very confident” that the information-sharing process had improved.

The border patrol and transportation security division will oversee immigration processing, container security and traveler safety and the nation’s airports, borders and ports.

The emergency preparedness and response unit will work with state and local governments, police and fire departments and hospitals and other health providers to prepare for attacks involving nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This unit, which will include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also will coordinate the government’s response to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.

The department’s science and technology division will oversee the development of technologies to detect weapons and of vaccines and medicines to protect against smallpox and other biological agents.

The Secret Service, now part of the Treasury Department, and the Coast Guard, now in Transportation, will remain distinct entities within the new department.