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Panel recommends sweeping national security changes

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A blue-ribbon commission unveiled a detailed report on national security Wednesday, calling for sweeping changes in the way the government handles what it calls a "significant and growing" threat of terrorism on U.S. soil.

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National Security Correspondent David Ensor has more on the commission's findings

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One of the panel's main recommendations is for President Bush to create a new Cabinet-level National Homeland Security Agency to handle prevention, response and recovery to terrorist incidents.

The bipartisan U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century is headed by former Sens. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire, and Gary Hart, D-Colorado, and includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, among its members. The report was commissioned several years ago by the Defense Department.

"If we have a disaster -- and we think it is quite probable in the next 20-25 years -- we're not prepared to deal with it," Rudman told CNN.

One commission member said the United States is "damn lucky not to have had more" terrorist attacks in the last few years given the "large and growing number of people wishing Americans ill around the world."

"Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, Khobar Towers, the Africa embassies, the Cole -- these are just the beginning," the member said. "This country is woefully unprepared."

The proposed agency would take over the Border Patrol from Justice, Customs from Treasury, the Coast Guard from Transportation, the FBI counterterrorism center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), among others.

In addition, the agency would assume responsibility for cyber security from Commerce and the FBI. State National Guard units would take on homeland security as their primary task under the commission's proposals. The commission also recommends a series of upgrades of U.S. intelligence gathering against potential terrorists.

While the commission does have strong backing, many of its recommendations are likely to face stiff opposition due to the magnitude of some of the changes.

The commission said the United States will lose its technical edge upon which national security is based if dramatic steps are not taken soon to increase the number of Americans studying advanced science, math and engineering.

As a result, the report recommends a "science and technical education act" offering loans to college students studying science, math and engineering, with the loans being forgiven if the student agrees to work for the government for a given number of years.

It also argues for higher pay and better benefits for military personnel, particularly captains and majors, where attrition rates are highest.

On another front, the report argues that the National Security Council at the White House has too much power and should be strictly limited to giving the president advice on policy.

"Ever since (former Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger, it has become more and more operational," said one commission member, "because they don't have any congressional oversight to speak of so they can do whatever the president wants them to do -- a la Oliver North."

The operational power should be returned to the State Department, the commission report argued.

Bush administration officials said they will look closely at the commission's recommendations. But the proposal for a National Homeland Security Agency is sure to stir controversy, because it will take resources away from some well-entrenched agencies.

And critics like James Steinberg, who was former President Bill Clinton's deputy national security adviser, said agencies simply need better cooperation in the fight against terrorism, not another new agency.



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RELATED SITES:
U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century
U.S. Department of Defense
U.S. Border Patrol Home Page
U.S. Customs Service
United States Coast Guard
Phoenix FBI Counterterrorism
Federal Emergency Management Agency

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