Lieberman Announces Plan for Homeland Security
By Mindy Finn
WASHINGTON – The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is moving rapidly on legislation to establish a cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security, which would bring the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard and other offices responsible for critical infrastructure protection under what the sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Ct.), called a “single administrative umbrella.”
Lieberman, the committee’s chairman, said that he feared that Tom Ridge, President Bush’s new director of homeland security, will lack the authority he needs to do his job unless he is armed with statutory authority and the spending authority that goes with it.
The committee will meet this morning (Friday) to consider Lieberman’s bill, which he unveiled at a news conference yesterday, the one-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and against the backdrop of an FBI warning that it has received information that there may be additional terrorist attacks on U.S. territory or abroad in the next few days.
At a news conference yesterday Lieberman appeared with Senate co-sponsor Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and Reps. William “Mac” Thornberry (R-Texas) and Ellen Tauscher (D- Calif.) who co-sponsored similar legislation in the House last March.
While Lieberman and his congressional colleagues discussed their legislation, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were speaking at a Pentagon memorial service held in honor of those who died at the site exactly one-month ago. On the national Mall, American flags planted ankle-high, some with dedications to victims and others with condolences from elementary school classes, reflected the bright mid-morning sun after being placed there earlier that day.
In a statement later in the day, Lieberman said he plans to approach the Bush Administration about appointing an independent commission to fully investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and help answer Americans’ questions about how the country could have been so vulnerable to the threat of terrorism. He said he is prepared to write legislation to do so if necessary. Independent boards of inquiry were formed after national tragedies in the past such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, took his new post under an executive order. But Lieberman said that Ridge would be more effective as the head of the “robust” executive agency that his bill would create.
Creating the office by statute, Lieberman added, would also ensure that future Presidents appoint someone to coordinate homeland defense. “The next one might not have a personal relationship with the President,” he said. If the bill become law, he said, President Bush could appoint Ridge to the post, subject to Senate confirmation. In a statement issued for the news conference, however, Rep. Thornberry suggested that a Secretary of Homeland Security would oversee Ridge or any other White House chief of homeland security. “Just as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice looks to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in carrying out U.S. policy abroad, so too would Gov. Ridge look to the Secretary of Homeland Security in carrying out U.S. policy at home,” Thornberry said.
The new department laid out in Lieberman’s bill would have three functional directorates-what he called the “3 Ps”: prevention, including securing the border; protection, including securing critical infrastructure, including computer systems; and preparation, including emergency preparedness and response.
Lieberman and Specter said at the news conference that they based their legislation on testimony before the Governmental Affairs Committee by former Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren G. Rudman (R-N.H.), co-chairmen of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, shortly after the attacks.
Specter said he hoped for continued urgency in moving the legislation forward. Ridge can handle the job if he has sufficient authority, Specter said. He cited the threat of bio-terrorism that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson addressed at a Governmental Affairs sub-committee hearing last week. “That’s a chilling problem, and it was a chilling hearing,” Specter said. “There is a need for overall direction and overall supervision on this important subject.”
Thornberry agreed that putting all the agencies responsible for homeland defense into one agency is key. “We don’t need Gov.Ridge or the President managing dysfunction, trying to figure out how you are going to get the Border Patrol radios to talk to the Customs Service radios,” he said. “We need to bring together all of the response entities around the government where seconds or minutes can mean countless lives.” He added that Lieberman’s bill is not inconsistent with what President Bush has already done. It is just another step in the right direction, he said
Rep. Tauscher expressed her hope that House and Senate leaders will bring the legislation to the floor this year. “It will send a very strong signal to the American people that we are very serious about putting the management of these groups together to work behind the President in protecting our homeland,” she said.
Specter said the President had to act quickly in appointing a director of homeland security on his own authority, and added, “My sense is that when we craft a very good bill and send it to the President, he will sign it.”
Thornberry said that he has been in contact with some people who work for the agencies that would be consolidated under Lieberman’s legislation and that they think a statutory Department of Homeland Security is a great idea. “We will have colleagues that will be reluctant to lose their oversight authority in Congress,” he said. “I’m not saying it is going to be easy” to move the bill through to enactment, but “lots of people on the ground think it’s a good idea.”