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Ridge begins homeland security work

Saturday, January 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Tom Ridge was sworn in Friday and began the daunting job of stitching together a Homeland Security Department from the tens of thousands of workers who patrol America's borders, secure computer networks, check for contamination of crops and otherwise help guard against terrorism.

The new Cabinet agency is the largest government reorganization in more than 50 years, a response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the threat of further terror.

"We've learned that vast oceans no longer protect us from the dangers of a new era," President Bush said during a brief swearing-in ceremony for Ridge at the White House.

As Bush's 15th Cabinet secretary, Ridge is charged with combining the forces of 22 agencies and more than 170,000 workers with "the overriding mission of protecting their fellow Americans," the president said.

Most of these workers, spread across the nation, will continue to show up for work at the same office, ship or airport as before.

"You can't really secure the homeland from the nation's capital," said Ridge, who left his job as Pennsylvania governor in October 2001 to oversee the administration's homeland security operations, a job that until Friday had him working in a small West Wing office in the White House.

Some Democrats complained that the Bush administration wasn't devoting enough money and resources to the job. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the "myth of homeland security" was built on bureaucracy and rhetoric.

"The truth is we are not prepared, we are not supporting our first responders, and our approach to securing our nation is haphazard at best," Clinton said.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic presidential contender, said, "We remain dangerously vulnerable."

In response, Ridge said much has been done already. He noted better information sharing among the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies and improved cargo inspections at ports around the world, thanks to the work of customs agents.

Ridge will preside over the biggest reshuffling since the Defense Department was created in 1947.

The Homeland Security Department will have its own analytical unit to examine intelligence gathered by the CIA, FBI and others for clues about terrorist plots. It also will coordinate with 2 million police, firefighters, medical personnel and other first responders around the nation.

Other responsibilities include:

--Securing the borders with Canada and Mexico and 95,000 miles of shoreline and improving the trouble-plagued visa system to track foreigners as they come and go, as well as inspecting imports.

--Preparing for and helping recover from emergencies, whether from terrorist attack or natural disaster.

--Leading the government's response to the threat of chemical, biological or nuclear attack. For example, the department is starting an early warning system designed to detect smallpox, anthrax or other deadly germs if terrorists release them into the air.

--Safeguarding all manner of infrastructure, including bridges and airports, hospitals and laboratories, crops and water supplies, computer and telephone systems, nuclear and chemical plants and more.

Among the agencies it will take over are the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service and the Transportation Security Administration. The first-year budget is expected to be about $33 billion.

Many of the agencies won't legally fall under the department's authority for five more weeks. Ridge said the complicated details like telephone systems and management issues are being worked out.

"We will be robust and up with just about everybody in every department on March 1," he said.

The president created a homeland security office inside the White House and put Ridge in charge after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush initially resisted Democratic proposals for a Cabinet-level agency. But once he endorsed it, the president pushed Congress to speed up the process through lengthy debate on such issues as whistle-blower protections, protecting civil liberties and collective bargaining for department employees.

The department combines agencies that are also responsible for a wide range of duties besides combatting terrorism, such as collecting tariffs, rescuing boaters and watching for outbreaks of common livestock diseases.

Ridge said these tasks will still get done, even with additional anti-terrorism duties.

"A lot of these people have been doing homeland security missions, and nobody ever paid much attention to them," he said.

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On the Net

  • Homeland Security Department: www.dhs.gov


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