Bush Asks for an Anti-Terror Cabinet Post

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Susan Walsh/AP

Bush announces his push for a Cabinet-level homeland security office

Reminding the nation that "we are at war," President Bush appeared on national television Thursday evening to propose the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Advisor, the new agency's director will be a Cabinet member, and therefore subject to congressional oversight and approval.

Citing the need for a coherent and uniform anti-terror strategy development and risk assessment, the President outlined his plan during an 11-minute primetime speech broadcast on the major networks. "I ask the Congress," he said, "to join me in creating a single, permanent department with an overriding and urgent mission: securing the American homeland and protecting the American people."

Who will take the helm of this monumental task? The obvious choice is current Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge. Appearing on CNN immediately following the President's speech, White House chief of staff Andrew Card seemed to hint that Ridge is the front runner for the new post, but equivocated when asked outright if the former Pennsylvania governor would be the nominee.

The department's focus will be anti-terror; its daunting functions will include streamlining the exchange of information between intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA, border control, emergency response, and the development of scientific and medical protection from bio-terrorism. Each day the agency, the President added, will be responsible for creating "a single picture of threats against our country."

The White House is very much aware of GOP fears of bloated bureaucracy, and the President took care to address those concerns. The agency's mission, the President said, is "not to increase the size of government, but to increase its effectiveness." According to initial estimates, the Department of Homeland Security will not create new expenses; instead the department will pick up 169,000 employees and a budget of more than $37 million from agencies whose duties it will assume. Those existing agencies include the INS, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard.

Congressional approval is expected to be swift and nearly anonymous; no one, after all, wants to be stranded on the wrong side of this issue should tragedy strike again. Thursday, senior Democrats and Republicans alike lined up to vocally support the President's initiative, including Senator Joe Lieberman. There is some dissent from those who doubt the plan goes far enough; Senator Ted Kennedy criticized the proposal early Thursday, saying, "The question is whether shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic is the way to go." And there are some, including Lieberman, who worry publicly that internal turf wars over shifting lines of leadership could bog down the approval process in Congress.