Freedom will be protected rather than threatened with the Department of Homeland Security,Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a special House hearing Thursday where the four senior Cabinet members offered their endorsement for President Bush’s plan.
“Liberty is what we’re securing,” Ashcroft said at the first hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The creation of the new department,which would be the largest overhaul of the executive branch in 50 years,is a necessary step to “thinking outside the box” without thinking outside our rights and values,he said.
“Al Qaeda planned carefully and deliberately to exploit the seams in our security,the seams between the international agencies and the domestic agencies,” Ashcroft added. He said the new department would bridge the gap and better equip us for the 21st century.
“For the first time,” he said,”America will have under one roof the capacity for government to work together to identify and assess threats to our homeland,to match these threats to our vulnerabilities,and act to insure our safety and security.”
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill agreed that the expansive nature of Bush’s plan was vital to our national security and the government’s ability to efficiently function in a war against terrorism. He said Sept. 11 forced the same creative thinking onto the Bush administration that President Truman used in 1947 to create the Department of Defense.
“We cannot respond to the terrorist threats simply by pledging more cooperation or making marginal changes,” O’Neill said. “We must be willing to make a dramatic transformation in light of the dramatic threats we face.”
That is why,he added,previously separate agencies must not be merely collected under one roof without clearly established principles and missions guiding their integration.
The plan Bush presented on June 6 would bring together the security capacities of more than 100 agencies,which hold a combined budget of $37 billion. It calls for the establishment of the department by Jan. 1,2003,with some pushing for action in time for the first-year anniversary of Sept. 11.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the new department would ultimately allow better,faster communication and coordination of information regarding terrorist threats and attacks. However,he insisted that the authority over visa issuance not be moved from his Department of State to the new department,despite recent criticism that has led to an investigation over visas obtained through bribes.
“We have the experience,the training,the language skills,and the dedicated people to perform this mission,” he said,adding that their efficiency has radically increased since September 11th and that the support of the Department of Homeland Security would further strengthen its capabilities. He said this job can be done while still promoting America as a nation open to visitors,refugees and workers.
“We will not put up tall fences,sprinkle broken glass on the tops,put a guard at the gate and seal ourselves off from the rest of the world,” he said. “We will not become ‘gated America.'”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,his arm in a cast due to a recent thumb operation,said that although the FBI and CIA will not be included within the new department,the groups will work closely together and will benefit from shared information.
However,Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) expressed concern Wednesday at a Senate hearing that a conflict in opinion or information between the groups might undermine swift,calculated responses to threats.
White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge insisted the department would be well equipped for a fast-paced response to all threats as national security would be its top priority. “Time is of the essence,” he said.
But many lawmakers are concerned that the capabilities of agencies included within the current Department of Homeland Security framework may be threatened by a focused call to terrorism prevention and reaction.
Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.),Chairman for the Committee on Environment and Public Works,offered his support Wednesday while questioning the survival of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),which would be merged into an Emergency Preparedness and Response division of the department. Jeffords worried that the merging of FEMA would threaten the efficiency of its current response functions to natural disasters.
The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to keep most of FEMA distinct from the new department,to leave immigration services of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Justice Department and to move the Secret Service there from the Treasury Department as opposed to Homeland Security. There is also conflict over the placement of the Coast Guard,which Bush hopes to leave to the new department.
The House Committee on Homeland Security,chaired by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas.),is set to pool Bush’s proposal and House ideas into one bill next week. The Senate plans to present its bill in September.