Washington Turf Wars Take Teeth Away from Ridge’s Office

The Monterey County Herald, May 12, 2002
By Leon E. Panetta

In a recent poll reported in the Washington Post, 84 percent of those interviewed considered it likely that terrorist attacks or similar acts of violence would occur in the United States “in the near future.”

According to the poll, about half of all Americans feel no more safe and secure from terrorism today than they felt immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Former Senator Warren Rudman, one of the co-chairs of the U.S. Commission on National Security, stared straight at the audience at a recent Panetta Lecture Series and said without hesitation: “There will be another terrorist attack in this country.”

And yet, the same survey also suggests that the public’s confidence in the major institutions that have a responsibility for homeland security–confidence that surged after September 11–is on the way down.

Part of the reason may be the failure to track down those involved in the anthrax attacks or the recent mailbox pipe bombs. Part of it may be the difficulty of presenting a clear strategy on the complex issues of homeland security when compared to the more direct and understandable military operations in Afghanistan. And part of it may also be the frustration of dealing with increased travel security and delays that are now so much a part of our lives.

But perhaps the most important reason for this growing vacuum of confidence is the sense that those responsible for homeland security lack the necessary authority to direct and coordinate policy in this area. As a member of Congress recently commented: “Never has a person been given so much responsibility with so little authority.”

From the moment Tom Ridge was appointed as presidential assistant in charge of homeland security, he has been the focus of an increasingly bitter battle within the White House and Congress over the shape and scope of his authority.

Instead of becoming the preeminent leader of domestic security, Ridge has become a White House advisor with a shrinking mandate, forbidden by the President to testify before the Congress to explain his strategy, overruled in White House councils and overshadowed by powerful cabinet members reluctant to cede turf or their share of the limelight.

When the Pentagon moved to suspend air patrols over New York, Ridge was not consulted. According to The New York Times, the special assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Domestic Security was quoted as saying “We don’t tell the Office of Homeland Security about recommendations, only about decisions.”

When Ridge urged support for the Energy Secretary’s request for $379.7 million to improve security for nuclear weapons and waste, the director of the Office of Management and Budget nevertheless cut the request 93 percent.

When the Administration received warnings last month of a possible terrorist threat against banks, it was the Attorney General who made the announcement.

On Capitol Hill, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee had to summon four cabinet officials for help in considering a supplemental appropriations bill supporting homeland security. The Chairman complained he had no other choice because Mr. Ridge – “the single figure with the responsibility to protect the lives and property of American people from the attack” – refused to testify.

Having served with Tom Ridge in the Congress, I know him to be a dedicated public servant who is committed to getting his job done. But make no mistake, if he is not given a clear line of authority over the agencies involved with homeland security, he will fail.

The fundamental problem facing Ridge relates to some deep and intractable factors that characterize the operations of the federal bureaucracy regardless of administrations:

  • Protection of Turf. There is a natural instinct in each department or agency to protect its jurisdiction. While loyalty is an important quality necessary to the esprit of any federal operation, it can often inhibit the cooperation necessary to any team effort. The first loyalty should be to the President and to the overall policy of an administration. But absent specific authority to enforce that control, that principle is often forgotten.
  • Size of the Bureaucracy. The sheer numbers of departments and agencies that share responsibility for any given area can be overwhelming. Homeland Security alone involves well over 40 agencies. When that many separate operations are involved, it is impossible to establish a clear mission and set of objectives without a strong leader having authority from the President and the Congress.
  • Failure to Share Information. Many of the agencies and departments have different information systems and technologies. Oftentimes, these systems are not compatible. Add to this the strong instinct to protect information relating to national security and the result is oftentimes poor communication of vital information. A presidential assistant can sometimes be the last person to find out what is happening within a department or agency.
  • The Fight for Funding. Because the lifeblood of each department or agency is money, each has developed its own approach to the Congress for funding their programs. Unless there is a single individual or authority responsible for the funding and budgets of these entities, they will seek their own money whether or not it fits the overall strategy of homeland security.

These factors are clearly undermining the ability of Tom Ridge to do his job. There is no way someone in charge of homeland security can coordinate policy, fight for funding and obtain the necessary information without sufficient authority. It is the difference between someone who is a good public relations spokesman for national security and someone who is actually in charge of that job.

The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century correctly recommended the creation of a national homeland security agency with “responsibility for planning, coordinating and integrating various U.S. government activities involved in homeland security.”

They recommended building this agency on the capabilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and including customs service, border patrol and coast guard. Legislation to this effect has been introduced in the Congress by both Republicans and Democrats. It should be supported by the President.

This is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of national security. Just as the Secretary of Defense is responsible for coordinating the military operations of the United States against terrorists abroad, the Director of Homeland Security should have the same authority to coordinate and direct operations against terrorists here at home.

If September 11 told us anything, it is that we cannot afford to allow the internal politics of either the executive or legislative branches to prevent the nation from doing what is essential to protecting its people.

In the end, this is not a choice between the success or failure of the Office of Homeland Security. This is a choice between victory or defeat in the war on terrorism here at home.

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

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