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Coast Guard joins Homeland Security Department

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, left, accepts the U.S. Coast Guard flag from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta Tuesday.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, left, accepts the U.S. Coast Guard flag from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta Tuesday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid precision drills and military pomp, the U.S. Coast Guard came under the jurisdiction of the newly created Department of Homeland Security Tuesday, part of a unification process that represents the largest government reorganization since the Truman administration.

The Coast Guard is one of 22 governmental departments that will be under the auspices of Homeland Security, a merger that will be fully completed by March 1. At that time, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge will be in charge of 175,000 employees.

Tuesday afternoon, Ridge is scheduled to participate in ceremonies transferring the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center from the Treasury and Justice departments to the Department of Homeland Security.

During the Coast Guard's "Changing of the Watch" ceremony, Ridge smiled as he watched an honor guard go through its paces before Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta handed over the reins of power to the Homeland Security secretary.

"Today, I am delivering to you ... another awesome responsibility, the care of one of our nation's finest treasures, the United States Coast Guard," Mineta said, choking back tears.

The transportation secretary praised the Coast Guard for always measuring up in each of its missions during the almost 36 years it was part of his department. But, he said, the nature of those missions has changed and the Coast Guard has new challenges.

"Our nation faces a maritime threat unmatched in the capability of mass destruction," said Mineta. "Where once the threat was illegal whisky or rum, now it is the shipping container with a nuclear device or a biological pathogen."

With an enormous American flag hanging on the wall behind him, Ridge called the Coast Guard "one of this country's most valuable assets as we work together to complete the mission of the new department."

The Homeland Security secretary spoke of the progress that has already been made by his department, including enhanced passenger and baggage screening at airports; reinforcing U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico; a proposed new budget; deployment of biological attack sensors; laying the groundwork for a terrorist threat integration center; and a public information campaign for Americans to prepare themselves against terrorism.

Saying he looks forward to the "journey that we are going to begin together," Ridge joked that he may need a year's supply of Dramamine, a popular motion sickness medication.

"I welcome the extraordinary opportunity to serve with you as the secretary of the Coast Guard," he concluded.

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