It's bigger than Big Brother. Call it, well, titanic brother.
Only hours before President Bush called for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, Senator Ted Kennedy stuck one of the lone discordant notes in what was otherwise a symphony of support for the idea. "The question," said Kennedy, "is whether shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic is the way to go."
In his 11-minute speech to the nation, Bush noted that the United States needs the new security agency as it "[leads] the civilized world in a titanic struggle against terror." Titanic it is, a $37 billion new cabinet department with up to 200,000 employees with unprecedented power to snoop into, poke around, and investigate virtually every aspect of American life.
According to the White House, the reorganization of the federal government is the most sweeping one since just after World War II, when President Truman and Congress brought us the National Security Act of 1947 (followed by its modifications in 1949 and 1958), which created the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the vast military-industrial complex that sustained the Cold War for nearly half a century. Now, President Bush and his top cops -- Tom Ridge, director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, and Attorney General John Ashcroft -- are leading an effort to bring that same spirit to the American homeland. And, by making it a permanent department, they are cementing in stone the notion that the War on Terrorism is now a never-ending fact of life, admitting, ironically, that a victory over Al Qaeda and its scattered, more junior would-be imitators is impossible.
The mission of the new agency is also impossibly broad. It will protect America's borders, ports, airports, rail and transportation links, inland waterways and rivers, and our communications systems. It will issue visas and screen visitors and immigrants. It will oversee a vast empire of domestic preparedness, from emergency response measures to radiological detection efforts to pharmaceutical stockpiles, manage disaster recovery, and maintain emergency communications technology. It will run the Secret Service. It will oversee security plans for tens of thousands of private-sector installations, such as chemical plants, nuclear power facilities, oil and gas refineries and pipelines and much more -- including financial institutions. Apparently, parts (or all) of more than 100 U.S. agencies will be gobbled up by this Gargantua.
Most worrying, especially for those who care about civil liberties, the new agency is a giant step toward the creation of a domestic intelligence superagency. For the first time in its history, the United States will have an institutionalized intelligence agency that can target domestic dissidents as well as foreign enemies. (The definition of terrorism, remember, is dizzyingly broad, in the Bush administration's lexicon -- sweeping up not just Al Qaeda-style nihilists but also dissident groups whose fringe elements might engage in vandalism.)
The White House says bluntly that a key part of the new agency will relate to domestic intelligence. "Currently, the U.S. government has no institution primarily dedicated to analyzing systematically all information and intelligence on potential terrorist threats within the United States, such as the Central Intelligence Agency performs regarding terrorist threats abroad," according to the White House. "The Department of Homeland Security, working together with enhanced capabilities in other agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation would make America safer by pulling together information and intelligence from a variety of sources."
The "enhanced capabilities" of the FBI, of course, include the disturbing new powers that Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller have arrogated to themselves, first by ramming the USA Patriot Act through Congress last fall and then, last week, by suspending guidelines that restricted the FBI from engaging in overly intrusive investigations. Those guidelines, imposed to curb abuses by the FBI in the 1960s and 70s, were eviscerated by Ashcroft, provoking howls of protest from the American Civil Liberties Union. And, on top of that, the FBI is being reinvented as the main engine of a domestic intelligence system.
That's the key to the new bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, where hundreds of agents from the FBI, the CIA, and other components of the U.S. intelligence system will staff a domestic intelligence agency. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Until now, despite abuses here and there, the FBI has remained primarily a law enforcement organization, tracking criminals, collecting evidence, making cases, and putting bad guys in jail, while its intelligence division focused chiefly on foreign spies and their U.S. agents. But intelligence is an entirely different function from law enforcement. Law enforcement collects only data that relate to crimes, whereas intelligence is simply information, gathered strategically and analyzed for policymakers and war-makers. Ridge's Department of Homeland Security will absorb the FBI's new domestic intelligence output, combine it with intelligence from the CIA, the National Security Agency, the military's spy satellites, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and a host of other agencies, and create a humming analytical capability that can target dissidents, oddballs, and troublemakers of all kinds.
The White House expects us to believe that its titanic new machine is aimed entirely at Al Qaeda and kindred organizations. But anti-globalization activists, radical environmentalists, civil rights militants, anti-abortion forces, militia groups, animal rights activists and others may suddenly find that Tom Ridge is watching them, too.