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KWAME HOLMAN: Until today, the President’s Homeland Security Advisor, Tom Ridge, had declined repeated invitations to testify in public before Congress, noting he is a confidential advisor to the President. But now that the President has proposed a new Department of Homeland Security, it’s part of Ridge’s job to lay out plans for the massive new agency.
At the outset of today’s Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman Joseph Lieberman quipped about Ridge’s debut.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I believe this is your first official testimony before…
TOM RIDGE: It is.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: …a committee of the Congress. Long-awaited, much pursued, greatly anticipated. (Laughter) And I thank you for honoring this committee by being here.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ridge announced the administration envisions maintaining a homeland security office inside the White House, even as it consolidates nearly two dozen federal agencies under a new department. Ridge described its logic and functions.
TOM RIDGE: Because terrorism is a global threat, we must have complete control over who and what enters the United States. We must prevent foreign terrorists from entering and bringing in instruments of terror, while at the same time, facilitate the legal flow of people and goods on which our economy depends. Protecting our borders and controlling entry to the United States has always been the responsibility of the federal government, yet this responsibility is currently dispersed among more than five major government organizations in five different departments.
The war against terrorism is also a war against the most deadly weapons known to mankind: Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Currently, efforts to count currently, efforts to counter the threat of these weapons are too few and too fragmented. We must launch a systematic national effort against these weapons that is equal in size to the threat that they pose, and we believe the President’s proposal does just that.
KWAME HOLMAN: The President’s plan would put 22 federal offices and their 170,000 employees into a new cabinet- level department, with a budget estimated at $37 billion. It would acquire jurisdiction over the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and the recently created Transportation Security Agency.
The CIA and FBI, which have been faulted for not sharing intelligence, would remain independent. This morning, Ridge described what intelligence data the new department would have access to and was questioned closely about it by Senators.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Am I correct in understanding that in the administration’s proposal, that the information analysis section of the new department would not be involved in the collection of intelligence data?
TOM RIDGE: Correct. Your assessment is…
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: But…
TOM RIDGE: …correct, Senator.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: But it would be involved in analysis of information sent… intelligence information sent to it by the various intelligence agencies.
TOM RIDGE: That’s correct.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: So that it would develop its own analytical capacity and analytical team.
TOM RIDGE: Correct, Senator.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Why would the President not provide that the new secretary of this new agency would have all information made available to his agency for assessment when it is information that relates to a credible threat of terrorism in the United States?
TOM RIDGE: There is a legitimate concern, I believe, on behalf of the administration that the new department not be viewed– and I think very appropriately so– by this country as an intelligence- gathering agency with regard to citizens of this country, that we should not be involved in the collection.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I’m not talking about gathering. We’re not talking about gathering intelligence. That is clear. We’re talking about analyzing intelligence that has been gathered properly. Why would not the President provide that the new agency have access to all of such properly gathered information?
TOM RIDGE: The FBI, along with the CIA, will give to the new department the reports, the assessments, and the analysis. They will get raw data from the other intelligence-gathering agencies within the federal government, potentially. We can get raw data from the local and state police, hopefully, if we can build up the capacity to make sure that the information shared is going in both directions. But the function, the primary function of this office is to integrate all the information that is received from these agencies without… initially without the raw data. If they choose to go back, based on their assessment, unanswered questions, or a belief that perhaps the assessment was inaccurate or should be different, they have the capacity to go back and request the raw data.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: It seems to me that it leaves the problem, the gaps, the cracks unanswered, because right now we have a situation where the CIA and the FBI and other agencies do not share data. It’s not integrated.
TOM RIDGE: I believe the language in the President’s proposal assures that this department gets the series of reports, the work product of the intelligence community, and they have the capacity to perform or provide their own competitive analysis, they have the capacity to connect the dots the same way.
KWAME HOLMAN: The committee next heard from former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. They were members of a commission that last year warned the U.S. was ill-prepared to combat acts of terrorism. Both suggested that it would take time for the new department to develop its own intelligence analysis capability.
FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I would say, Senator Levin, that there is no way that this thing could get up and running they’re talking about, and if you were going to put all the dots in that place and ask that place to connect them, you’re putting yourself at great risk for the next two or three years. You’ve got a steep learning curve for those people. You may not be able to get the people.
FORMER SEN. GARY HART: I don’t think there’s ever going to be a central key hole through which everything passes for a simple reason. Different intelligence is needed for different purposes. We need economic intelligence for diplomacy. We need law enforcement intelligence to catch criminals. We need homeland security intelligence to protect our homeland. The military needs intelligence to conduct operations in Afghanistan. So, to force all that different kind of analysis through a single funnel is probably going to be a big mistake.
KWAME HOLMAN: Later today before a House committee Ridge took questions on whether the consolidated department would cost more than its separate parts and whether functions not directly related to counter terrorism would suffer. But throughout the day’s testimony, members on both sides of the Capitol assured Ridge Congress will act quickly to approve the new Homeland Security Department.