- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

The White House, in a deal struck with House leaders, sent Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to Capitol Hill yesterday for the first of several informal closed briefings about the administration's $38 billion domestic counterterrorism program.
Mr. Ridge and Rep. Ernest Istook, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the White House, faced reporters after the 90-minute session in the Capitol to defend their decision to bar the public and press from the meetings.
"Congress needs information on how the Office of Homeland Security operates," Mr. Ridge said. "They control the purse strings. They have the constitutional authority to make statutory changes."
The former Pennsylvania governor said he wants to cooperate with Congress without violating the separation-of-powers principle involving close advisers to the president. "The question is whether a person who answers to the president, with no operational responsibilities day to day, should be called to testify before Congress," he said.
Mr. Istook, Oklahoma Republican, said the decision for secrecy had put House Republican leaders on "a bumpy road."
"We are on that road and making progress," he said, justifying the move on grounds that any classified issues involving terrorism and government countermeasures "could be addressed freely, we could get things handled more clearly and directly in an informal rather than formal meeting."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, stood defiantly as the chairman addressed reporters in the National Statuary Hall. "This was not a substitute for a [formal public] hearing," he said. "Nothing was said in the meeting that was not appropriate for a public hearing."
Mr. Hoyer told reporters afterward that he was angered by the way Mr. Istook brought cameras into the meeting room as the session ended. "It was a setup to make it look collegial," he said. "Tom Ridge is a wonderful guy. We all respect and like him. But the issue is, this administration is extraordinarily secretive about what it does, and unnecessarily so."
Mr. Hoyer said "a long list" of White House officials have testified before Congress over the years through the formal appropriations process. "I will also note that none of the individuals held a position as important or with more budget authority than Governor Ridge."
Mr. Hoyer said Democrats were not giving up their insistence that Mr. Ridge testify at a formal hearing, which he called "clearly the best forum in which to learn how the resources appropriated to the Office of Homeland Security are being spent and about the efforts that are being made to implement a national strategy for homeland defense."
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress say the White House posture has marginalized Mr. Ridge. "By not testifying, in terms of relevancy, Ridge risks becoming the incredibly shrinking homeland security director," said David J. Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Istook said he has serious differences with some administration plans to consolidate border agencies within the Justice Department.
"The agency that failed to ride herd on the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] should not be entrusted with other responsibilities," the lawmaker said. He said the U.S. Customs Service should remain in the Treasury Department, which historically has policed trade, goods and people that flow across borders.

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