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Commentary: The Superagency: A Good Start, But...


In a June 6 address to the nation, President George W. Bush announced the most sweeping government reorganization since President Harry S. Truman created the Defense Dept., the CIA, and the National Security Council in 1947. His ambitious goal: to create a department whose sole mission is to make the U.S. safe from terrorists. "Employees of this new agency will come to work every morning knowing their most important job is to protect their fellow citizens," Bush proclaimed.

Certainly, no one would argue with improving anti-terrorism efforts, particularly after weeks of revelations of pre-September 11 intelligence failures. But the President's statement must have come as a shock to a lot of the workers slated to move to the proposed Homeland Security Dept. Sure, many of them will protect borders, prepare for disasters, and analyze intelligence reports. But thousands of others will be collecting customs duties on imported toys, setting standards for treatment of circus animals, and overseeing astrophysics research.

There's a better way. The department should be smaller and more focused. But the President also needs to realize there's much more to homeland security than a new agency. He must improve coordination between Cabinet departments involved in anti-terrorism. And the current plan isn't a substitute for addressing the intelligence shortcomings of the FBI and the CIA. Bush's blueprint "is a good first try," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber. "But they need to force [existing agencies] to communicate and trust each other."

That's a tall order. And it'll take sustained Presidential pressure to pull off. A few suggestions:

-- Focus on the mission at hand. By swallowing 22 agencies and programs and inheriting 170,000 employees, the proposed department is just too unwieldy. The $37 billion-a-year behemoth must be streamlined to concentrate on its anti-terrorism issue. "There needs to be a judicious untangling of functions that do not bear at all on homeland security," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

A logical place to start is the Customs Service. While its border-security role fits the new agency, its money-collection duties should stay in the Treasury Dept. Likewise, the Coast Guard's boating-safety programs, oil-slick cleanup, and boat fees belong in the Transportation Dept. Says a top GOP Hill aide: "Do you want Tom Ridge investing hours of time approving fee schedules?"

-- Fix intelligence problems. In trying to keep the new department from becoming too sprawling, Bush sidestepped a crucial issue: how to fix the two agencies at the core of the problem, the FBI and the CIA. What's more, the President concluded that the new agency should be limited to analyzing intelligence rather than independently gathering it. The Homeland Security Secretary will not be entitled to raw intelligence reports of other agencies, just analysis summaries.

That's a major drawback. Espionage experts say the limits are bound to create intelligence lapses down the road. Ivo H. Daalder, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution, says the failure to share raw data "makes no sense. You cannot connect the dots by analyzing analysis and not data." One solution: Require the other intelligence agencies to open their files to the new department.

A more fundamental question is what to do with the FBI. Rather than shifting the bureau's ingrained law-enforcement culture to a terror-prevention approach, it makes more sense to spin off the terrorism duties to a new agency. One model: Britain's highly successful MI5 domestic security unit.

-- Force agencies to cooperate. The Pentagon needs an assistant secretary for homeland security, as recommended by ex-Senators Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) to coordinate with the new agency. State, Justice, and Transportation also should name high-level liaisons. Says Hart: "The President's job is to make them communicate."

Some worry that Congress may make the situation worse. "This could get tweaked to death," says Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.). Still, a few tweaks could turn a well-meaning but flawed idea into the agency Bush envisions. By Richard S. Dunham

With Paul Magnusson and Lorraine Woellert in Washington


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