Every new administration begets its share of policy buzzwords. At the moment,
"homeland security" is very much in vogue. An important concept saddled with an
ill-chosen moniker (it's hard not to detect a whiff of the worst kind of
retro-nationalism), the fundamental notion is finally incarnate in the form of
the newly created Office of Homeland Security.
Its chief, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, has an office mere steps
away from his boss and close friend, George W. Bush. For Ridge and the whole
Homeland Security initiative, this is about as ideal as it gets. If true power
and success are defined by proximity to the president, Ridge's position is hard
to beat. For those intrinsically opposed to government, it's also hard to
attack--no sprawling new bureaucracy, just Ridge and a staff of about 100.
In theory, Ridge's office will coordinate the efforts of dozens of agencies
spread through multiple departments, somehow finding a way to craft a
comprehensive national strategy that will supersede traditional rivalries, turf
wars, redundancies, and intransigence in the name of a truly effective,
cooperative effort. In practice, it's likely to be a study in marginalization.
Once you are appointed "czar" of anything in this country, you're immediately on
a course as perilous as that of your Russian royal forebears. Like his fellow
U.S. czars of past and present, Ridge has no actual fiscal power; and despite his
closeness to the president, his influence can easily be diluted in the wash of
agencies he's supposed to coordinate.
Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania see a potential train wreck up ahead. Consequently,
they've produced one of the few truly sensible pieces of post-September 11
legislation: the Department of National Homeland Security Act, which would take
domestic-security-related agencies out of their existing departments and
reconstitute them under a new cabinet-level agency, making Ridge a full-fledged department secretary operating with a charter and money of his own. "The
coordinator position is simply not very powerful as such--it's not statutorily
authorized and has no budget authority; and lacking a homeland-security
department, the president really doesn't have anyone to give marching orders to
when something needs to get done," says Lieberman staffer John Tagami. "We'd like
to see an actual agency that has people, a budget, and a statutory mission to
protect our nation. And Congress is part of the equation, too. There's been some
talk about creating a homeland-security committee."
But after the rapid passage of legislation that grants the federal government
expansive if not invasive powers in the name of the war on terrorism, some in the
civil-liberties community aren't expecting Congress to take an active role in
aggressively watching for excesses. "Congress just massively surrendered
authority to the executive branch, and I don't see why anyone would think
Congress would do anything but more of the same," says Jim Dempsey, deputy
director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The growing trend in this
administration is to withhold information. It is blowing off the existing
oversight committees, and I don't see how creating another would make things any
But according to Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government
Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, the Bush administration has
actually been fairly good on homeland-security-policy disclosure so far--perhaps a
point worth exploiting vis-à-vis a new department. "A new department is
well worth considering, in that we plainly have a problem with a whole range of
security policies that ought to be addressed consistently, cohesively, and
effectively, " he says. "And it's vital that these policies be formulated and
implemented above board, with full transparency and congressional oversight.
"What's interesting," he notes, "is that the Bush administration generally has
been reluctant to release any of its presidential directives--and has even
inaugurated a new category of directives called Presidential Directives on
National Security, only one of which was released after it leaked. However,
there's another new set of directives, dubbed Homeland Security Presidential
Directives, and the administration released the first two as soon as they were
signed. And the whole question goes hand in hand with the re-examination of the
FBI and the intelligence bureaucracy. If homeland defense is pursued in an open
and productive way, it could hold much of the solution to the long-deferred
reforms necessary for the FBI, CIA, and other agencies."
Others, mindful of American intelligence operations' history, remain
skeptical. Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti
Discrimination Committee, says that no matter what its status, Ridge's office is
likely to follow the path of the CIA, "going from an umbrella coordinating group
to a bureaucracy with imperatives of its own."