- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

What war seems to take precedent against the one being waged against terrorism?
The answer is, the government turf variety.
Despite his imposing physical stature, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge is no blunderbuss in the political arena, displaying a careerlong ability to dance around the pitfalls of Pennsylvania politics and win high recognition on the national stage. But his agility is being tested as never before as he tries from a diminished power base to meld the disparate parts of the Byzantine federal bureaucracy into an efficient force against more September 11s.
Take, for instance, the defense of the nation's borders, thousands and thousands of miles of relatively open, unprotected space that present as porous and vulnerable a target as anywhere on Earth worth entering. Currently, there are four departments that claim distinctly different responsibilities for overseeing the legal, and pursuing the illegal, crossings of this vast territory.
Sharing the duty and answering to their own hierarchies are the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the Transportation Department, and, believe it or not, the Agriculture Department.
It breaks down this way. The Border Patrol is a function of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is part of Justice. The Bureau of Customs is a piece of Treasury; the Coast Guard is under Transportation. And the quarantine and inspection program, which is geared to keep out things like foot-and-mouth disease and contaminated fruits, plants and vegetables, belongs to Agriculture.
Mr. Ridge believes it is reasonable to bring all these responsibilities, none of which are the sole functions of their departments, under one manageable, coordinated umbrella for the good of home-front security. He even had proposed including money to set up the new agency in the current budget just sent to Congress by the White House. But that plan got scuttled because of adverse reaction from the various departments, all of whose bosses have more clout than Mr. Ridge.
While the former Pennsylvania governor enjoys President Bush's personal endorsement and an office close to the chief executive, he does not have the official status of a department secretary or the influence with Congress. And although most of the Cabinet members were somewhat sanguine about the prospect of losing some turf, the agencies directly involved saw Mr. Ridge's proposal as a major threat to their interests. Some members of Congress thought it was a good idea, but others are highly protective of the bureaus and agencies they oversee in the appropriations process. All the agencies mentioned have strong lobbies on Capitol Hill.
Even the Defense Department, which is in the process of drafting its own plan for a new homeland military force, got in the act, arguing along with the other departments that the new agency would be too disruptive.
The score now reads: Bureaucrats 1, Ridge 0.
But Mr. Ridge doesn't give up easily, as his career from the Marines to the statehouse in Harrisburg attests. He is giving the concept a rest while he and his staff refine a blueprint for giving his proposal a new try. There is, however, growing concern in White House circles that the frustrations of trying to create a coherent, efficient approach to ensuring internal security from the stew of self-interests may ultimately claim him as a victim. Without official line and budgetary authority, his job continues to be among the more difficult in the entire war on terrorism.
The entrenched bureaucracy has been running this town since the days of George Washington. The first lesson for anyone who is offering his services at the highest level is that one can't change it much, even during moments of national stress. The best one can hope for is to manage and manipulate it. Mr. Ridge is too bright not to have understood this when he took the position. On the other hand, Mr. Bush missed an opportunity to provide him with the official credential and force of office that would help.
It makes infinite sense to bring the fragments into one mosaic of border protection, eliminating the conflicts and jealousies that hinder the kind of cooperation necessary to assure Americans that they are safe from intrusion. There have been some successes under the present system, including arrests at the Canadian border last year that thwarted a major terrorist operation. There also have been some obvious failures. We still aren't certain how many.
Mr. Ridge has a good idea. It is to be hoped that the inside-the-Beltway battle over turf finally will give way to an understanding that the best way to fight the real war is to think outside the bureaucratic box for once.

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


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