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But will we be any safer?

By Karen Tumulty

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If there were a political version of the color-coded terrorism-alert system, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott would have gone to orange last week as he braced for an emergency Republican caucus.

Several G.O.P. Senators were in revolt over news that House Republicans had tinkered with legislation creating a Homeland Security Department, slipping in provisions that had little to do with making the country safer but a lot to do with making special-interest groups happy. Lott figured he could get House leaders to delete the most egregious items when Congress returns in January, so he had his staff hang a sign with a single word on it: TRUST.

Just before the Senators filed in, Lott placed a Santa hat on the sign, a reminder that the legislation, which would set in motion the largest reorganization of the Federal Government since the Truman Administration, was the biggest thing standing between a cranky lame-duck Senate and its holiday break.

Lott got the deal he wanted, but the props speak to larger realities about the new department. It's a creature born of politics, haste and a leap of faith. President Bush initially rejected the concept, then embraced it last June amid revelations of large-scale pre-9/11 intelligence failures. But will merging 22 federal agencies into a single department whose primary mission is fighting terrorism actually make us any safer? Probably, the experts say -- but not as safe as we might hope. A lot depends on the answers to five key questions:

1. What will it do?

More than 60% of the 170,000 people assigned to the new department will be involved in controlling the nation's borders. The idea, says Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, is to present "one face at the border." It's long overdue. Such a merger was talked about as far back as Herbert Hoover's Administration, but the departments that control services like the Coast Guard (Transportation), Immigration and Naturalization (Justice) and Customs (Treasury) have jealously guarded their turf. Merging them will be a culture shock, as each has its traditions and ways of doing business.

The sprawling department will also be charged with creating a nationwide communications system to make sure that everyone who needs information has it and knows whom to give it to, from Microsoft security and privacy experts in Redmond, Wash., to beat cops in Tallahassee, Fla. And in the terrifying event that the system fails and a major terrorist attack occurs, the department will be responsible for ensuring that cities and states have the resources they need to respond, whether it's adequate hospital beds or medical personnel trained to recognize smallpox.

2. Could such a department have prevented 9/11?

Probably not. To the degree that there were any warnings, they were lost in the fragmented world of the agencies that collect and analyze intelligence -- none of which will be under the new department's jurisdiction. The Homeland Security Department will create an in-house analysis unit, but its output will be only as good as the information it gets from the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency. Those agencies could stand to improve their own operations. The New York Times reported last week that the FBI's second-in-command, Bruce Gebhardt, recently fired off a memo complaining that some supervisors in smaller field offices still lack a "sense of urgency" in hunting terrorists.

Nor would better border controls have helped. The hijackers did not sneak into the country but obtained legal visas under their own names. None were on any watch list for terrorists when they applied for U.S. visas.

3. How will it be funded?

Despite all the urgency surrounding the department's creation, the money it will need has been slow in coming. The President asked for $38 billion, but the White House and Congress, paralyzed by election-year bickering, never got around to appropriating it--and probably won't until February at the earliest. That left the government with only one option, shifting about $640 million from unspent funds meant for other purposes.

Particularly hard hit are cities and states, which were counting on $3.5 billion from the feds for training personnel to respond to terrorist attacks. When Washington issued an orange alert last September, Detroit had to pull police from regular duty to guard the city's bridge and tunnel to Canada. Complains Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., and president of the National League of Cities: "Right now, we need more than new nameplates and organization charts."

4. When will it be up and running?

It's the biggest reorganization since Harry Truman combined War and Navy into a single Defense Department after World War II, and that one required several retoolings over the next four decades.

So there is no end to the challenges in creating what will become the Federal Government's third largest bureaucracy, after Defense and Veterans Affairs. The department formally comes into existence 60 days after the law is enacted, and within weeks Bush will detail how agencies should come on board. But experts warn that it will be years--if ever--before everyone is in place and pulling in the same direction. The project is already months late, thanks in part to squabbling among the 22 presidential appointees who are seeing their turf sliced and diced beneath them. (One complaint: How come the Coast Guard commandant gets to report directly to the new Secretary, whereas Customs and INS have to go through an Under Secretary who in turn reports to a Deputy Secretary?) Asks James Steinberg, a scholar at the Brookings Institution: "Are we going to spend as much time haggling over the uniforms and badges, or will we get at the core issues?"

Not the least of those issues is privacy. The department's very creation acknowledges that catching terrorists requires breaking down barriers between intelligence gathering and law enforcement. But civil libertarians are worried that the new department, with its souped-up databases, will step over the line. Just as scary is the possibility that it won't go far enough. "We need national guidelines for using information that we collect and accessing databases," says Philip Zelikow, who directs the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "The people who work day in and day out need to know what they are allowed to do, not just what they are not allowed to do."

5. Is Tom Ridge up to the job?

As much as anyone is. While he got lukewarm reviews for running the White House's Homeland Security office -- the much ridiculed color-coded alert system was his most famous achievement -- Ridge has so far lacked the authority to command a bureaucracy and control a budget. But that will change if, as expected, Bush nominates him to be the new department's first head.

A former Pennsylvania Governor, he has experience running a complicated government and has won praise for his efforts to improve communication between Washington and state and local officials. And Ridge by all accounts retains Bush's confidence -- something he will need for the infighting that lies ahead. But it's hard to imagine a job where the measure of success is trickier. After all, as Ridge says, a good day is one on which nothing happens.

--With reporting by Eric Roston and Elaine Shannon/Washington

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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