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Securing the Homeland

November 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The new Department of Homeland Security will be drawn from eight current cabinet agencies; 22 separate functions and 170,000 employees will be combined under the new umbrella, including: the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, and the Transportation Security Administration. The estimated budget: $38 billion.

But how will it work?

Here to answer some of those questions are Mayor Karen Anderson of Minnetonka, Minnesota, she’s the president of the National League of Cities; Paul Light, the director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, he is also the author of the book, Government’s Greatest Achievements, from Civil Rights to Homeland Defense; and Angie Kelly, a deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan research organization.

Welcome, everybody.

Paul Light, give us an overview, how is this supposed to work? It sounds like a behemoth in the making.

PAUL LIGHT: It is a behemoth in the making. It is not just the largest reorganization since the 1940s. It’s arguably the most difficult reorganization in bureaucratic history, dating back to Roman times I would guess.

It’s a difficult merger, complicated, you have to bring together a number of agencies that don’t share the same mission. You have to create some sense of common goal here. And you have to do it very quickly. I think we got safer by passing this bill but we can’t oversell what we are getting here. It’s going to take a good long time to get this Department to gel, if it gels at all.

GWEN IFILL: When you say quickly, they rushed to the pass the bill before they went home; they made a point of passing this bill. The president thought it was urgent.

So now that we have this and when the president sign it is it becomes law, how soon before we actually see this department take shape?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, they say that it will be in place within a year. Technically, that is correct. You got 23 presidential appointees to move true a process that is sluggish at best. We hope that they’ll be able to make the nominations quickly and that the Senate will respond quickly.

But getting the Department in place technically is not the same as getting it in place in terms an organizational culture and a general commitment to the same mission. These are agencies that have not worked well together in the past, that have long histories of disagreement and that in many cases don’t know each other very well. Basically I would argue that we need to give it three to five years to fully gel. I think the probability of being safer each day increases, but we’ve got a long way to go.

GWEN IFILL: Mayor Anderson, let’s talk about the first responders, the people who actually have to make a lot of this work. As a president of the National League of Cities, do you have any concerns or optimism about the creation of this new department?

KAREN ANDERSON: I have some optimism and I also have some great pessimism. I think I would even characterize it as outrage right now. Because while the — we are hearing this is a massive reorganization and that hold great promise for us.

It will help coordinate efforts to fight terrorism and we need that in our cities and towns. But it doesn’t get the resources to our cities and towns, to the first responders that we need to better prepare. While the bill authorized the $38 billion for the Office of Homeland Security and for many of the elements of that, it did not authorize the $3.5 billion for our first responders for our cities and towns. And that’s a great loss.

GWEN IFILL: Now I used the term first responders. You used term first responders. What are we talking about here?

KAREN ANDERSON: We’re talking about our local police and fire fighters; we’re talking about our emergency medical personnel, those folks that are called on to respond immediately, in any kind of a natural disaster or an act of terrorism. Those are the folks that responded first in Arlington, Virginia, and in New York City. And they are the one that are going to have to respond if there are — heaven forbid — future acts of terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: Angie Kelly, let’s take apart one big part of this huge combination here. That is the Immigration and Naturalization Service; it’s basically going to be split in two, but moved from where it is to a new place and does that make it work better?

ANGELA KELLY: No, I don’t think it will. I think it will be a disaster quite frankly, unfortunately the INS has always been the step child of the Department of Justice, it was the stepchild of this debate. Not enough consideration was given to how to restructure the INS effectively within the Department of Homeland Security. The construct that has been passed by the House and Senate is a terrible outcome.

It would take the enforcement functions of the INS, such as detention, investigations, the Border Patrol and shove them into a big sub-department with Customs and the Coast Guard and transportation related issues. Then in a wholly separate department, would put services, people seeking to naturalize, refugees seeking persecution — seeking protection, family members trying to reunite, without any coordination between those important functions of service and enforcement.

GWEN IFILL: Why isn’t that an improvement over a system which so many people say is broken?

ANGELA KELLY: It is broken, a broken agency administering broken laws, here was an opportunity to fix that system. It didn’t improve it. It hasn’t improved it because there is nobody in charge of both service and enforcement. The result will be this: You will have decisions being made about how our laws are enforced, about who gets put in detention; what the rules and regulations are about that, and then a wholly different person making decisions about the rules and regulations about how we naturalize people, how we deal with Haitians who are coming in seeking asylum.

So many of the functions of our immigration laws are both service and enforcement. And we need to have a person at the top with clout making those decisions, we don’t have that in this new proposal. What we have is basically a guidance councilor without any authority.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Light, the concerns that the mayor and that Angie Kelly have brought up here, is there, are there provisions in this legislation to address that as time goes on? Clearly they couldn’t have thought of everything.

PAUL LIGHT: Well there’s no reorganization in recent history that hasn’t required perfection or perfecting overtime. This one is going to need a fair amount of it. There is reorganization authority for the president within the legislation. In fact the president really won pretty much everything he wanted out of this bill.

This is his department, but we’re going to have to go back in; the Department of Defense, the celebrated analog for this new Department of Homeland Security, was redone several times. It took 40 years before we finally felt like we got it right and another ten years for the Defense Department to really put its act together in integrating the services in a military setting. So we’re going to have to go back in here.

The problem with INS is that it is a broken agency. It has long been regarded as imperfect at best. The law it is administers do not fit well together. It is not on my list of government’s greatest achievements; let me put it this way.

GWEN IFILL: But one of the big problems that almost stopped this from passing, the big fight that affected the elections a few weeks ago, was this question about civil service protections for the 170,000 employees. Does that in a practical sense, politics aside, have an effect on the ability of this Department to get its act together?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, I think we generally agree that the civil service system is broken. You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting somebody who will acknowledge that it’s just not doing its job. The president has sweeping authority under this new legislation to design a new system from scratch. He hasn’t told anybody what the new system will look like and that’s created a great deal of anxiety within the Department.

Couple that with the labor-management dispute over union bargaining rights as well as the continuing resolution, as well as the recent proposal by the Bush administration to outsource 450,000 federal jobs, and you’ve got a work force in this new Department that is pretty anxious and pretty nervous. The new secretary is going to have to work very hard to calm things down. A lot of people said things during this debate that politicized and sharpened the disagreements. And we’ve got to calm that down right away.

GWEN IFILL: Mayor Anderson, money aside because local and state governments never seem to be quite happy with all the money they can get from the federal government, but that aside for a moment, is the potential for new coordination of all of these functions from the federal government, does that make your job easier, potentially?

KAREN ANDERSON: I think it will for sure. That is one of the things that we’ve been urging for in the creation of the department. You know, I do believe that our cities and towns are much more safe and secure than we were 14 month ago. There are better emergency preparedness plans in place. Our buildings are more safe and secure. There is better training for all of our first responders. So we have come a long way. Our concern is that we have done that entirely on our own.

We’ll welcome that help in coordination, especially coordination of our communications systems. That is a desperate need. But we can’t do this on our own anymore. And we’re, we welcome the opportunity to partner with the federal government in addressing these new challenges.

GWEN IFILL: When you say communication systems, you mean literally something as basic as radio operators being able to talk to one another?

KAREN ANDERSON: I mean radio interoperability. The problem that we’ve heard about in New York City is indeed there throughout all of our communities in the United States, as well as the interoperability between levels of government between our cities and our countries and our states. And very often that is how an emergency preparedness system works is through those different levels of government. So we need to expend quite a bit of fund on improving the technology and working on better coordination of those systems.

GWEN IFILL: Angie Kelly, part of the goal of putting INS under this new umbrella was to be able to apply the border restrictions, controls, visa tracking into the United States to stop terrorists from having access to the kind of weapons — the planes they turned into weapons on September 11 and the other potential for havoc. The way this has been structured, does this make sense to you that that would work?

ANGELA KELLY: No. I fear that the future terrorists could find other loopholes to exploit. I think the way that has been structured service and security is going to suffer I think the terrorists could find ways through the service agency that’s hanging out on a vine in the new proposal and come in and do us harm because of the lack of coordination that I mentioned before.

GWEN IFILL: But if you tighten the borders and you tighten the Coast Guard and you combine the Border Service, Immigration, Coast Guard, isn’t that — doesn’t that make it better than it is now?

ANGELA KELLY: Well, it’s not just a matter of tightening up we’ve done a lot of that. Congress passed a sweeping piece of legislation that did get us safe in terms of our immigration system. It’s fundamentally a matter of intelligence of knowing who the bad guys are and trying to change our laws in a way that isolates terrorism without isolating America.

I don’t think the Department of Homeland Security will be able to effectively provide services to newcomers. The vast majority of immigrants come to the country to embrace it and build it — not to tear it down. They are going to find themselves waiting in longer lines, people who want to naturalize and join the American family not being able to do so. Employers who want to bring in strong immigrant workers to help build the economy won’t be able to get the needed workers and I worry that smart terrorists are going to find ways because of the lack of coordination between the service functions of this agency and the enforcement functions to still sneak in and do us harm. I don’t think that was the right recipe.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Light, you mentioned that who ever takes over this agency has a lot on his plate. I say him because the name being bandied about is Tom Ridge show now rung the interim department as it were. Can he handle this?

PAUL LIGHT: I like to joke since Moses isn’t available, Tom Ridge will have to do. I think Tom Ridge is a terrific potential secretary. Part of the advantage of having him at the helm here is that he has run a very large frontline work force as a governor. He also has worked with labor unions. He understands that labor is part of the equation. I think he has got the experience to do so.

Certainly he has had the frustrations of not having any authority over the last nine, ten month to get cooperation. We need to remember that reorganizations is just a means to an end. The real test here is going to be whether Tom Ridge uses the authority he has to create coordination, to increase the probability that these agencies are going to work together and while at the same time making sure that services are delivered and that we don’t needlessly delay or weaken access to the country. That’s a real challenge and I think he is definitely up to it.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Light, Angie Kelly, and Karen Anderson, thank you all for joining us.