- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Aside from establishing a color-coded warning system for terrorism and improving airport security — at least partially — it is hard for most Americans to make much out of the Department of Homeland Security. Will that change with the appointment of former New York Police Commission Bernard Kerik to succeed the departing secretary, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge?

The huge government reorganization created by a panic-stricken Congress in the wake of September 11, 2001, and reluctantly signed into law by President Bush is exactly what its critics predicted: an almost unmanageable amalgam of disparate parts with no clear line of authority over all the aspects of domestic security, particularly intelligence. It seems always in a power struggle with its older sister-departments, including Defense, Justice and Treasury, whose jealous guarding of turf often stymies the best intentions.

So was this exercise necessary? As feel-good legislation for a frightened public, it certainly had some merit. But as a good, long-term prospect for helping avoid another terrorist assault, the verdict is still out and will be for the foreseeable future.

For Mr. Ridge, a tough former Marine accustomed to action, there have been obvious frustrations. Not only has he met roadblocks in a dozen different areas, at times even his control of the threat level was usurped by the Justice Department. Getting his arms around all his many responsibilities has been nearly impossible and will be for his successor.

The questions are numerous. Does the secretary really have much control over the Secret Service, for instance, whose main mission is protecting the president and vice president and the presidential candidates during a campaign? How can the vast border be secured without full cooperation of the Pentagon, already is hard-pressed to meet personnel needs overseas?

While there have been noticeable improvements in overall homeland protection, there are obvious gaps. Airline passengers are screened thoroughly and airplane cockpits doors are reinforced to prevent intrusion. Air marshals ride many flights. But cargo holds are vulnerable.

Subways and harbors and aboveground rails are largely unprotected. Smuggling in by sea of a weapon of mass destruction remains a strong possibility.

The truth is this nation is too large for a complete suppression of a terrorist threat short of draconian measures that would stifle the freedom of its own citizens. Even then, it probably would be impossible to prevent another major catastrophe on the scale of September 11, which nearly every expert believes is inevitable. All we can hope is that most efforts to terrorize this country will be unrewarding. Had some of the current security measures been in place, the September 11 terrorists would have failed, if they had tried it at all.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the September 11 commission, told reporters the other day that adopting intelligence reforms pending on Capitol Hill is necessary to make it far more difficult to attack the United States. Absolutely security would be impossible, he said.

So what are the chances for the Homeland Security Department to become what its congressional sponsors intended and what Mr. Ridge tried to accomplish? Probably not good unless a new secretary can clearly define his responsibilities and authority and make it stick within the Cabinet and the Oval Office.

The key here is where the department stands in the intelligence spectrum. Intelligence is the life’s blood of any defense against terrorism. If the department is a second-class player in gathering, sharing and analyzing information needed to head off another attack on U.S. soil, it will remain just a home for disparate parts with no coordinated effort or effective policy. It will be difficult to fit a strong Homeland Security Department intelligence mission into the concept of a new director of central intelligence, the main provision of the pending intelligence bill. But the legislation creating the department specifically provided for an intelligence center.

Mr. Ridge clearly did his best to make something out of this vast bureaucracy, but there are doubts he really had the complete backing of the White House. The new secretary must make sure he has equal weight with the attorney general and the defense and treasury secretaries on policy disagreements and security responsibilities. Otherwise, the nominee should forget it or be satisfied to say what the color of the day will be.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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