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Ridge Faces Tough Job Coordinating Homeland Front

WASHINGTON-President Bush's newest Cabinet office has a soothing name meant to evoke feelings of safety in a nation still freshly wounded from terrorist attacks.

But the man tapped to head the new Office of Homeland Safety, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, faces his new mission with a fairly loose job description, a glaring national spotlight - and a potentially bruising bureaucratic struggle.

Already, current and former lawmakers are wondering whether the White House office will carry enough clout to bring together diverse and powerful agencies such as the FBI, CIA and Defense Department to craft a national plan to combat terrorism.

"No homeland czar can possibly hope to coordinate the almost hopeless dispersal of authority that currently characterizes the 40 or 50 agencies or elements of agencies with some piece of responsibility for protecting our homeland," former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart said during a Senate hearing Friday.

Former Sen. Warren Rudman, who co-chaired a commission with Hart that warned earlier this year of the growing threat of a domestic attack, said sitting at the right hand of the president is less important than some control over purse strings.

"We believe that without budget authority, command authority, accountability and responsibility to the Congress and the President, nothing in this government ever works very well," he said.

Bush's announcement of Ridge's appointment, made during Thursday night's historic speech to the nation, caught most at the Capitol by surprise. While the idea of creating a point person for domestic security has been floating around Washington for some time, the sudden creation of the office - and the sketchy information surrounding it - left many more than slightly bemused.

"The job description for Ridge is still one of the best kept secrets in Washington, as far as I know," said U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, Fla.

What is known is this: Ridge will head to Washington in about two weeks, after wrapping up the last of his business as governor. His first mission is to come up with some way to make sure that anyone and everyone with a hand in fighting terrorism, from local police forces to the National Guard, is talking and working together.

"The key here, when it comes to homeland defense, is to have one very effective person at the pinnacle of it who can help coordinate it," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The role of Ridge and his new agency, Fleischer said, is not to replace or usurp the CIA, FBI or Defense Department in their intelligence-gathering activities. He said Ridge will be something of a domestic counterpart to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the White House's top foreign-policy expert.

The Office of Homeland Security probably will absorb some of the country's existing internal-security branches, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. That was one of the recommendations of the commission led by Hart and Rudman.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham also is using those suggestions as a framework for his own plan, in which Congress would officially authorize Ridge's job and grant the office its own budget-including oversight of the money spent by the FBI and CIA on counter-terrorism efforts.

Graham, D-Fla., included the post in his slate of anti-terrorism legislation Friday, saying Ridge needs more power of the kind that only Congress can grant him. Bush created the job by executive order, but Graham and others want to further validate the position by adding it into federal law.

"We applaud what the president has done by executive order; we want to build on what the president has done," said Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Graham's legislation also includes a number of other measures updating and expanding the laws governing wiretapping and other surveillance tools. Graham also wants to require local and state police to share any information about potential terrorist plots with federal investigators.

Goss applauded Bush's quick action but said there are still a lot of details to be worked out between the president and Congress.

First and foremost are the almost inevitable turf wars. Goss noted that when Ridge gets to work, he'll be faced with CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller - both below cabinet level but powerful.

And when he sits down with the rest of Bush's inner circle, Ridge will be staring at Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - heavy hitters who will match Ridge in rank but who control much more.

"Then you start talking about these interrelationships and whose troops are where - and whether Gov. Ridge is going to have any troops in this job, or whether he's just going to have phone lines," Goss said. "There's a lot to be seen here."


(c) 2001, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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