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Historical Perspectives: New Cabinet Office for Homeland Security

June 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now for historical perspective on the President’s reorganization plan, we turn to four NewsHour regulars: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss; journalist and author Haynes Johnson; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas; and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University. Welcome to you all.

Richard, what’s been the history of Presidents being able to pull off big, sweeping government changes like this?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it’s a mixed bag really, Margaret. It’s a truism that nothing so expands the power of government or centralizes that power in the executive branch as war. The Civil War, for example, gave us the first income tax. World War I introduced something called the Selective Service Act. World War II led to an enormous expansion of federal authority, domestic and international. Of course the Cold War gave us the CIA and other intelligence agencies that are at the heart of the current debate.

It is also a truism that conservatives, as a rule, are not comfortable with the expansion of federal authority, and undoubtedly that was one factor, I suspect, that led the President to resist this proposal for as long as he has. We’re now being told that there is a historical prototype, in effect, for what is being proposed, and that’s the 1947 National Security Act by which Harry Truman reorganized the nation’s military and intelligence capabilities, in effect, in response to the threat posed by the Cold War.

But if you go back and look at the historical record, there’s some real questions about that. I mean, President Truman originally wanted something called universal military training. Well, Congress was so eager to demobilize after the war, that idea was quickly shot down. He then wanted something… well, the Central Intelligence Agency, which was not supposed to have operational capacities, was certainly not supposed to be involved in domestic activities. And because Congress did not specifically, at that time in its charter, prohibit those activities… needless to say, they were engaged in. And we forget, 30 years later, the smoking gun tapes that brought down Richard Nixon involved both the FBI And the CIA, the very two agencies that are at the heart of the current debate.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, where do you find the strongest historical parallel?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think there is a big one with ’47, with Richard’s very good caveat taken into account. Truman was worried most of all about a catastrophe, and that was Pearl Harbor, very much like George W. Bush and 9/11. During World War II, when Truman was just a Senator, he actually wrote an article saying that one big reason for this intelligence failure that allowed Pearl Harbor was that we don’t have central intelligence, and that we don’t have the Army and the Navy and the other armed services talking to each other in one department. So he was motivated that early, and by 1947, when it was clear that there was a Cold War, Truman reacted by saying, “we’ve got to respond to this potentially catastrophic development by bringing all the armed services together in a Department of Defense,” even knowing how bloody that was going to be, because, for instance, even the Navy, the Secretary of the Navy had been accustomed to reporting directly to the President. That wasn’t going to happen anymore. He knew how brutal a fight this was going to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Roger, how about in the creation of big domestic agencies, big domestic expansion? Did it also take cataclysmic events, or at least a strong sense of urgency, to get those done?

ROGER WILKINS: Sometimes it was mainly domestic politics. I think of President Carter creating the Department of Education. There was not a groundswell of demand from the American people, nor was there some catastrophic event. It was really, his supporters needed an agency. On the other hand, President Johnson created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That had two prongs. We had just – we were going through that period of urban riots. The cities were places that needed deep federal attention. But also, one of Johnson’s core constituencies was black people, and Johnson let it be known, “if you put this thing together and we get a department, I am going to appoint a black man to head this department up”– Dr. Robert C. Weaver– who will be the first black cabinet officer in history. So it was politics and the needs of the country coming together, for HUD.

MARGARET WARNER: The President, from the outset, Haynes, has warned about turf wars, and that… he hasn’t said it could scuttle this plan, but he has really warned against that. Now, is he right as an historical matter, that in fact whether it’s Congress, the bureaucracies, the interest groups, this can really undermine a proposal like this?

HAYNES JOHNSON: From the beginning of this republic, the turf wars of every agency– the Navy versus the Coast Guard; when the Secret Service came along later, versus the FBI and the CIA– It’s endemic. It’s in the bloodstream of the democratic process. You can’t avoid it. And you watch the lead-in on this program tonight. It was wonderful. All these things make sense. They’re logical. You put them all together; you say, “here’s a great big box. It’s a new toy. We wrap it up.” We say we’re going to protect ourselves. And maybe it will work, but this is a huge… everywhere you look, every President has tried to reorganize the federal government. They all come in…every one of them come in: I’m going to reorganize. Anybody who worked… you worked for the federal government — I didn’t – you didn’t either – did you — but the terror is some new team comes in; it’s going to work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.

But the wars, the rivalries… and it’s not just between the Congress and the executive agency. It’s the lobbyists; it’s the press; it’s the whole tapestry of our government. Everybody has a piece of it, and they want a piece of it. You know, Bill Clinton’s health care plan –I mean, this was the perfect… it wasn’t “reorganize in the government,” but how do you get it through? You have a majority at the House and the Senate and all this, and it just foundered by all kinds of problems. The Democratic leaders couldn’t get together. The committees couldn’t vote. They didn’t arrive at any… this is just built into the system.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, one of the… and you brought up the CIA and FBI earlier. Those two agencies probably have been the most faulted in terms of not sharing intelligence before 9/11, nonetheless pretty much stay independent and untouched. But now there are good historical reasons for not, say, merging them or creating one kind of super-efficient intelligence agency.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, sure. I mean, it’s fascinating to hear people now saying, “well, let’s do the logical thing. Let’s carry logic to its extreme. Let’s have one super-agency entrusted with domestic and foreign intelligence.” And that has a certain surface appeal, but everyone in this discussion is old enough to remember the mid-1970s, when both the FBI and the CIA were justifiably being raked over the coals for a whole series of abuses. You know, it’s fascinating to see some liberals in Washington all of a sudden discover that bureaucracies sometimes don’t work very well and sometimes they are subject to abuse. The CIA is an agency in point. You know, the President obviously believes that there are internal reforms already under way. There are a lot of skeptics about whether or not that is the case. The historical analogy I would look at is NASA– what happened after the “Challenger” explosion.

There was an independent commission, the Rogers Commission, which was as apolitical as anything gets in Washington, headed by a former Secretary of State, Bill Rogers. Sally Ride, an astronaut, our first woman in space, brought great credibility. They came back with their findings in four months. They looked at the technical questions of why the “Challenger” blew up, and they also looked at the organizational culture, and they transformed that culture. And the best evidence is that we haven’t lost a life since. What seems to be missing from this reorganization is that same kind of intense scrutiny leading to substantial change of the FBI and the CIA independently, let alone collegially.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That might be, but I think at the same time, you know, when we look at this in history years from now, we might well say, “here is a case where the government responded as it should.” When there’s a big new need, you have to reshuffle the cards. That’s what we did in 1947 when the CIA was created, and you also had the merged Armed Services into the Department of Defense. And also in this case, I think people will say one of the intelligence failures that led to 9/11 was that these agencies were not talking to each other. There wasn’t coordination, and the only kind of coordination that you can really get is if they’re in the same place.

ROGER WILKINS: But I think that… I think Richard makes a good point. Sure, you shuffle it when you need to shuffle it. But as they did with NASA, you think about it before you shuffle it, and that’s what a commission would do. The problem with this one is twofold. The real problems that we worry about now are in the CIA and the FBI, and this reorganization does not fix the culture of either of those agencies, and they both need fixing. Secondly, you’re moving problems around in the big shuffling.

The INS is always called a troubled agency. 35 years ago, when I was in the Justice Department, the INS was the stepchild. Nobody paid any attention to it. Nobody gave it any resources. It just was there, and that happened decade after decade after decade. Then all of a sudden when people start to look at the INS, they say, “oh, this is a troubled agency.” Well, yes. So now you’re going to put it into this behemoth where it’s not going to get attention either.

MARGARET WARNER: The President, though, is saying he wants to get this done by this coming September 11, Haynes. Would that be breaking the mold? Has it ever been done this fast?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think that’s unrealistic. I think he must know that he simply can’t move the boxes around that quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: And does history suggest that?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. It takes… and it should take time. I mean, you have a principle here that we need to do something. There’s nobody alive, in this country certainly, that doesn’t realize that something happened on 9/11 that was a catastrophic failure– government and everybody. So we’ve got to do something about it. I think we’re nine months too late starting, maybe, or six months too late. But you can’t do it between now and September 1. That’s what it requires. But you can start with leadership. That’s what it requires. It requires a Theodore Roosevelt getting in there and charging and says, “This is what we’re going to do, and you’re going to fight all the way down and meld it together.” But you don’t just do it with one speech and so forth. I think we need to do this, but it has to be done sensibly, practically, and it can’t be done just like that.

ROGER WILKINS: And the President is going to have to do an awful lot of political work beyond the kind of meeting that we saw in the setup piece, because what we call turf wars in the Congress are really people who have got expertise, and they don’t want to do something else after they’ve spent 20 years doing this.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you, all four.