- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

The nation's first head of homeland security yesterday reassured the nation that its security system was working well and that he was on the job, making sure it continued to do so.
In his first press conference as chief of the Office of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge told reporters assembled in the Executive Office Building that the security agencies were working together better than ever.
"Since Sept. 11, our government has worked so well together both the federal, state, and local [with the] public and private sectors [that] the American people can have confidence that their government is working around the clock to protect them. Our government is more coordinated than ever," he said.
In a symbolic gesture intended to show how the current emergency has melded various government agencies into a single force, Mr. Ridge brought several Cabinet members and agency heads to the Executive Office Building podium and introduced each in turn.
The others present at the press conference were Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Postmaster General Jack Potter and key officials from the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each of the agency representatives reported on his role and gave updated reports regarding the rash of anthrax exposures and infections.
Mr. Ridge addressed some of the concerns raised by members of Congress and various analysts about his power, his role and his ability to coordinate multiple agencies.
Later, Mr. Ridge met at the White House with smaller groups of reporters to answer questions in detail and, in effect, to reinforce the message that in this and further civil defense crises, the government would speak with one voice.
"We assembled this group [of officials] today to show you that on a daily basis, on an hourly basis every single day, there is communication and collaboration between all agencies of government," he said.
Answering questions about the extent of his authority since he did not hold Cabinet rank, Mr. Ridge said he didn't need the power such an appointment would confer.
He said he "went to Congress with a graphic" depicting the 46 agencies that made up the "security infrastructure." He said he wanted to show the legislators the complexity of the security network and illustrate how impractical it would be to lump under one agency the offices dealing with homeland defense.
"I am a coordinator, and a coordinator is like a conductor with an orchestra," Mr. Ridge said. "The music doesn't start playing until he taps the baton."
He pointed out that President Bush had told members of the Cabinet to defer to his oversight role, and said he had experienced nothing but complete cooperation.
"I have access 10, 15 paces away. I also can go in and see the president any time I want," Mr. Ridge said. "I'm on a first-name basis with the president.
"He calls me Tom. I call him Mr. President," the former Pennsylvania governor joked.
He said that in his role he is the only person who can step back and impartially oversee and monitor the security operations of the various offices, bureaus and departments.
Mr. Ridge, who in some circles is being called the "civil defense czar," said he talks to the president at least once a day. Likewise, he confers daily with the attorney general, FBI director and most members of the Cabinet.
The security chief has a staff of 14 to 16 persons, but that will grow to an office of 75 to 200 of "the best and brightest" from various agencies and homeland security specialists.
"My job is to take a good homeland security system and make it perfect, knowing that perfection may be impossible, but achieving it is the constant goal," Mr. Ridge said.
While his office has no budget authority for now, Mr. Ridge said, he has made budget recommendations that have been heeded and hopes to have a budget proposal for his own office on the president's desk soon.
He addressed security specialists' persistent criticism that lack of coordination among the federal departments and agencies has crippled counterterrorism efforts, saying that "I'm not sure that's true."
"I see it operationally from day to day, where the CIA and the FBI and the attorney general are collaborating on an ongoing basis," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft again assured the nation the Justice Department and the FBI were working around the clock to prevent future attacks, while searching for the source of the anthrax incidents. He stressed that agents were treating those who created hoaxes as terrorists and noted that even those who lied about participating in hoaxes were subject to penalties and would be prosecuted.
Commenting on his agency's efforts, Mr. Mueller noted that in a normal year the FBI is called to respond to some 250 chemical or biological incidents. But in the last 18 days it has responded to 3,300 calls; 2,300 were related to anthrax.
Mr. Potter announced the Postal Service would be sending a postcard to each person on the nation's master address list explaining ways to identify and cope with suspicious mail.

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