- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Democrats objected to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's informal briefing to members of the House Government Reform Committee yesterday, saying that the meeting was not open to the public.

"I am deeply disappointed that the meeting with Governor Ridge was not a public meeting," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat and a panel member, walked out in protest after the committee denied his request that the meeting be made public.

"This is a very serious matter that a director who speaks for the president on matters of national security is not accountable to the Congress, not accountable to the press and not accountable to the people," Mr. Kucinich said in a statement afterward. "Homeland Security has a $38 billion budget. There's been no public process to review this $38 billion budget."

Mr. Ridge's meeting yesterday was the second day in a row that he has gone to Capitol Hill to outline the administration's approach to homeland security. He met privately on Wednesday with members of a House Appropriations subcommittee to discuss the administration's domestic counterterrorism program.

Mr. Ridge, who spoke to the press after the briefing yesterday, said he has served in Congress and the executive branch and understands the "constitutional tension that sometimes exists between the two."

The administration has said that because Mr. Ridge is a presidential adviser and not a Cabinet official, he is not required to testify before Congress. This has angered some lawmakers.

Mr. Ridge spoke well of his meeting yesterday with the Government Reform Committee, saying that once they "got beyond the objections to how the briefing was scheduled, how it was set up," they had a "very productive" time and discussed a range of issues, including port and aviation security, intelligence gathering and continuity of government.

"Governor Ridge had good insights on all of these issues, and he gave us a lot of useful information," said House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, in a statement later. "Some of the issues we raised went into sensitive areas, so I think the fact that we did that briefing in a nonpublic forum was for the best."

But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, also objected to the private briefings.

"I don't know what you call an informal gathering, where they kind of kick around some ideas," Mr. Daschle said. "That isn't the kind of official presentation from an administration on an agency having to do with $38 billion in taxpayer commitment."

Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, held a hearing yesterday on legislation he plans to introduce that would make Mr. Ridge's office a statutory position, meaning there would be a new Cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security, with a secretary nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

"The bottom line is if statutory and budget authority are not conferred upon the director of homeland security, the homeland defense of this nation will always be less than what it should be," said Mr. Lieberman, who heads the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Mr. Lieberman's bill would create a Department of National Homeland Security, which would oversee several agencies and offices, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard. It also would create within the White House a National Office for Combating Terrorism to develop an overall assessment of terrorist threats and craft a national policy.

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