The Lone Star's Lonely Security Czar

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In the weeks after September 11th, as the entire country scrambled to bolster homeland security, the Texas government decided the state needed a new security office. But with the economy in recession and the state budget not looking so good, state leaders didn't feel like spending a whole lot of money on the idea. Governor Rick Perry figured out he could save funds by appointing Land Commissioner David Dewhurst to head the security task force. So Dewhurst started splitting time between two jobs. And since the state only gave him a $50,000 budget for his new department, he saved money by borrowing five staffers from the Land Office. One staffer joked that the budget didn't give them enough money for the airfare needed to visit all the state's vulnerable targets.

The Lone Star state isn't the only one to create a security czar and then not give him money or direction for his new office. President Bush's announcement Thursday night of a new cabinet department for homeland security was good news for state governments. They've been waiting patiently for the federal government to lead the way on homeland security. A cabinet secretary could finally do that.

After 9/11, the states put into place many of the most urgent, immediate security measures. But few worked on broader defense strategies to prevent and react to terrorist attacks. A big reason for that was Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge's failure to give them a comprehensive strategy. Ridge was having a hard time getting a firm grip on his job. The President had put him in charge of defending the country from all manner of possible threats without actually giving him any control over the agencies that could put his plan into action.

Meanwhile the state governments were asking for direction from Ridge. They didn't want to spend a huge amount of money and time on a defense plan if it might conflict with the eventual federal system. And they were also hoping the feds would give them more cash to pay for the whole thing. So Texas took some basic steps and sent Dewhurst out to airports with a grim, determined look on his face. (This was fine with Dewhurst, who is running for Lt. Governor and knows security czar sounds a lot more impressive than land commissioner.) Other states did little more. They weren't negligent — they implemented what protections they could. But most didn't aggressively move to create comprehensive strategies. And few looked at ways terrorists could strike other than by hijacking planes.

Ridge promised the states he would be releasing a comprehensive security plan in July. But the hearings in Congress forced Ridge and Bush to move faster. Ridge had long been advocating some sort of government reorganization to give his office at least a little control over agencies needed for homeland defense. With new disclosures coming out every day of how the FBI and CIA missed warning signs before 9/11, the administration has apparently decided it needs a more dramatic overhaul than what Ridge was originally planning.

Now that homeland security will be shaped into its own cabinet department, what do the states need from it? Well, the new department's secretary, be it Ridge or someone else, needs to make sure the department's various agencies work more closely with the states. And most of all, he needs to work with them to decide what their main security priorities should be. Where are they most vulnerable? What should be their first objectives? Some more cash would be nice too, since the latest data predicts most states' budget problems aren't going away for at least another year. Of course, state leaders are still going to have to be patient. Congress probably won't approve this new cabinet department until the end of the year.

Once it does, the new secretary might want to gently suggest to Texas officials that they hire a full-time security czar.