- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

The Senate's failure to consider President Bush's request for a Department of Homeland Security before its August break underscores the return to business as usual in Washington less than a year since the attacks of September 11. The political decision on behalf of Majority Leader Thomas Daschle to postpone deliberation on the most important issue facing the nation during this time of war is both disappointing and troubling.

While Congress, and particularly the Senate, is rarely inclined to expeditiously pass major legislation, there have been times in our nation's history when extraordinary events required our leaders to take extraordinary action. There is no doubt that September 11 will be recorded in history books as one of those events. The immediate threat to our safety here at home, combined with Mr. Bush's personal involvement and focused leadership, have created the uncommon political opportunity to fundamentally re-examine how the federal government should be organized to protect the American people.

While the challenges to create a functionally cohesive and operationally effective Department of Homeland Security are enormous, this endeavor is not without precedent. The National Security Act of 1947 folded the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force into the Department of Defense. Notwithstanding the similar core objectives of the military services to defeat enemy combatants through use of force, it took more than 40 years for the Department of Defense to think and act as a unified organization. By comparison, prior to September 11, none of the agencies to be merged into the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged homeland defense as their core mission.

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The incoming secretary of the Department of Homeland Security will have limited time to achieve the daunting task of getting the new department fully operational. The threat of chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological terrorism is alarmingly real and unavoidable. No degree of diplomacy or forward-based military presence can completely shield the cities, towns and communities of our nation from the horror that a weapon of mass destruction can unleash. Indeed, by the time that terrorists are on our soil, the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security may represent the nation's best line of defense. Failure is not an option the consequences are unimaginable.

The highest priority for the new secretary should be to quickly and decisively impose structural changes to the department's component agencies to ensure that homeland defense is a key element of their day-to-day activities. Prior to this undertaking, however, the secretary should assess the precise threats that warrant immediate attention and conduct an expeditious review of the capabilities and proper role of each of the department's components in defeating those threats. Unfortunately, many of the agencies slated to be acquired by the new department suffer from chronic shortfalls in equipment and personnel. For example, the Coast Guard fleet is facing operational obsolescence and the Customs Service and Border Patrol do not maintain adequate numbers of agents in the field to perform the mission of their respective agencies.

Budgetary control over component agency funding will be equally essential to the effectiveness of the new secretary. Similar to the secretary of defense, who has the authority to adjust the budgets of the military services prior to submission to the Office of Management and Budget, the new secretary should have substantial decision-making authority in this area. However, in addition to the Department of Homeland Security, many other federal agencies will continue to perform homeland defense missions, including the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, Maritime Administration and even the fledgling Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The White House must play a critical role in policy and program coordination across this area of the federal budget, and the president's decision to maintain a White House Office of Homeland Security is a positive signal in this regard.

With the events of September 11, terrorism emerged as the most virulent present threat to the American way of life. President Bush's plan for the Department of Homeland Security to serve as the front line against future attacks is a crucial first step. Congress must do its part by providing the new department the authority and resources required to close the current gaps that exist in our nation's homeland defenses. Failure on the part of the Senate to act swiftly on the matter may yield the unintended consequences of delaying much-needed reform and leaving the nation vulnerable to new and unforeseen terrorist attacks.

Former Rep. Tillie Fowler served in the House from 1993-2001 and was a member of the Armed Services Committee.

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