Homeland Security Gets an Overhaul

The two-year-old Homeland Security Department is undergoing a massive overhaul to centralize its analyses of terrorism intelligence and place higher priority on bioterrorism.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was resetting top priorities in a bid to spur a sluggish bureaucracy beset by turf wars and growing pains.

Creation of an intelligence director to centralize terrorism analyses and a chief medical officer to focus on bioterrorism are among top changes to be announced by Chertoff on Wednesday. These are two areas where experts believe the department has lagged.

Chertoff ordered a review in March, shortly after he took office, to ensure Homeland Security puts most of its resources into the nation’s most vulnerable areas.

“Our department must drive improvement with a sense of urgency,” Chertoff said in remarks prepared for Wednesday and provided to The Associated Press. “Our enemy constantly changes and adapts, so we as a department must be nimble and decisive.”

Transportation and border security are among Chertoff’s top priorities and will get more personnel, detection and screening technology and other resources, according to department officials. They spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity because the changes had not yet been announced.

Some lawmakers Chertoff briefed Tuesday said the overhaul was headed in the right direction but remained skeptical that bureaucratic reorganization would make the country safer.

“We appreciated him coming and talking to us, but … at the end of the day you have to show Congress and the public what you have done will in fact make us safer” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson said Chertoff highlighted immigration and vulnerabilities at chemical and nuclear plants as top priorities.

Meanwhile, the Senate was engaged in what promised to be a weeklong debate over the department’s spending priorities.

Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the Senate Republican who oversees domestic security spending, faced a fight with another senior GOP lawmaker over how much to increase funds for protecting mass transit after the London bombings.

As part of a $31.8 billion bill for Homeland Security next year, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., planned to offer a measure allocating $1.16 billion for commuter rail, subways and bus systems.

The bill currently sets aside $100 million for mass transit security _ $50 million less than was provided this year. But Gregg, who chairs the Senate Appropriations homeland security panel and is managing the bill, said he would only consider doubling mass transit security spending to about $200 million.

The House in May approved spending $150 million on transit security.

Many of Chertoff’s changes were recommended last year by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation, two Washington think tanks.

“The current organization is weighted with bureaucratic layers _ there are still turf wars and there is no place for strategic thinking and policy making,” said CSIS Homeland Security director David Heyman, who helped craft the recommendations.

Chief among them was creation of an intelligence director to centralize the analysis of information gathered by 11 Homeland Security bureaus. The director, who has not yet been appointed, will be asked to improve Homeland Security’s standing within the intelligence community, where it is perceived as a junior partner and often left out of the loop.

Created in 2002 as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Homeland Security was initially designed to be the government’s chief center for analyzing terrorist threats, but an interagency office led by a CIA officer has assumed that role. Homeland Security merged 22 agencies when it opened its doors in March 2003 _ the largest U.S. government reorganization in 50 years.

A chief medical officer also will be named to oversee bioterror policy and coordinate responses to biological attacks by the Centers for Disease Control, which stockpiles vaccines and antidotes, and state and local officials. Poor information flow between federal agencies during the Washington-area’s false anthrax scare this year contributed to the decision to create this post, officials said.

A new undersecretary will oversee international affairs, strategic plans and work with the private sector. And Chertoff will elevate cybersecurity by assigning it to an assistant secretary, who also focuses on telecommunications.

Eighty percent of the changes can be accomplished under Chertoff’s existing authority; the remainder require congressional approval.


On the Net:

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov

© 2005 The Associated Press