- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

The Congress and the Bush administration are in a row this week over whether Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge should testify before Congress. This misses the main point. The question is not whether the director has executive privilege as a presidential adviser, but whether he should have Cabinet status and be subject to congressional oversight. The war against terrorism is too important to get bogged down over this issue. The director of homeland security cannot prevent or cope with another massive attack without the full support of the Congress. Without congressional oversight and budgetary authority, the Office of Homeland Security cannot properly organize domestic agencies to deal with terrorism. It won't have staying power to last beyond the tenures of Mr. Ridge and President Bush and to survive during the quiet periods of a long war.

The administration has now confirmed that terrorists have acquired biological, chemical and nuclear materials to produce weapons of mass destruction. By coupling a conventional explosive with these materials terrorists could fashion a "dirty bomb" to destroy not just an individual building but an entire city. We are not moving fast enough to empower Mr. Ridge to prevent such attacks or recover from them. Mr. Ridge is "all hat and no cattle."

In the first six months of the 21st century's first war, we made substantial progress on the overseas battlefield but only scant progress on the home front. Mr. Bush has been persistently reminding us that the war against terrorism is our primary mission. However, the president is currently fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Once there is a will to win and the resources are provided, organization is the key to success, but the lack of organization on the home front could spell defeat. Mr. Bush says that Mr. Ridge has all the authority he needs. But so far, Mr. Ridge is operating under an executive order that allows him to merely coordinate the efforts of more than 40 disparate organizations involved with counterterrorism. Mr. Ridge can only urge, persuade or cajole, but not order or direct, these groups which have little in common and are often rivals.

By year's end, Mr. Ridge recognized that coordination alone is not enough. He has to overcome porous borders, information stove-piping, incompatible computer systems and bureaucratic turf wars. That is why Mohammed Atta could be pulled over on a traffic violation and released, even though his visa had expired, and several days later fly a plane into one of the Twin Towers. Addressing this problem, Mr. Ridge proposed that the four main agencies dealing with border security be consolidated. The department chiefs of these agencies howled, and Mr. Ridge backed off. Shockingly, on the sixth month anniversary of the attacks, a Florida flight school received notices from the INS that the student visas for two dead terrorists, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, were extended.

On March 11, Mr. Ridge announced an emergency alert system that would place all local and state agencies on a five-color alert program similar to the military's DEFCON system. Anxious to avert another debacle, the administration backed a stripped-down version of Mr. Ridge's consolidation plan. The alert system and consolidation plan are steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. Further progress should not be bogged down by arguments over executive privilege or by partisan politics.

In 1946, it was generally recognized that we could not win another war in the same way we fought World War II. Interservice rivalry was rife. The National Security Act of 1947 created a civilian secretary of defense. But it was not until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1987 that a unified command system under a commander in chief (CINC) was established. A CINC borrows ("chops") units from the services and integrates them into a cohesive fighting entity to perform a specific task. The service chiefs protested violently, but were overruled. Using this command structure today, Gen. Tommy Franks is winning the war in Afghanistan.

Faced with thousands of well-funded, organized and equipped terrorists in 50 countries, the United States does not have the luxury of taking 40 years to get properly organizedon the home front. Mr. Ridge should be given similar authority to create a parallel civilian command here at home. Unless this is done, the war against terrorists overseas could be successful but the war could be lost on the home front. Cabinet members can be expected to object even more strenuously than the service chiefs did. These civilian units are less disciplined and have had less reason in the past to work together. But this can and must be done.

The president must act with a sense of urgency to build an organization in time to deter and cope with another massive attack. But only through congressional action can the Office of Homeland Security be given the budget and the authority necessary to win a prolonged war. Accordingly, the administration should cultivate congressional support and pay the modest price of allowing Mr. Ridge to testify.


Retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny was a special adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush on arms control.


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