Homeland Security: A Primer

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President Bush urges the Senate to approve the Homeland Security bill

The House has approved it. The White House is behind it. And now the Senate has — painfully — voted to implement it. We've heard a lot about the Homeland Security Department over the past six months. But what exactly can we expect from this new division of government — and what effect will it have on the country?

The origins of Homeland Security
In the 24 hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, employees from nearly every department of the government were struggling to help, but running into barriers due to red tape or communication failures. And so the Office of Homeland Security was born, fronted by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. The White House later pushed to make the office a Cabinet-level agency, a push that is nearing fruition.

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It hasn't been an easy road to passage for the HS Department, but now, after the Senate defeated attempts by Democrats to strip the bill of GOP-sponsored add-ons, the White House is virtually assured victory. And while the first signs of transition will be limited to moving vans and packing boxes, they will signal the largest reorganization of federal agencies since the 1947 merger of the War and Navy departments, which formed the Defense Department, and the first major restructuring since 1977, when the Energy Department first came on the scene. The HSD would employ 170,000 people, culled primarily from the staff of 22 agencies, including the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Transportation Security Authority and INS. Duties of the new agency will include coordinating counter-terrorism measures as well as preemptive defense. The four divisions: border and transportation security; emergency preparedness and response; countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks; and a new intelligence clearinghouse. Ideally, this synergy means that if, for example, someone came into the country and aroused suspicion, the INS will have a direct link to the intelligence required to clear or arrest that person immediately. It also means that in the case of the next terrorist attack, the government will have a cohesive, prepared response to deal with damage and simultaneously ward off further attacks.

The cost of this massive overhaul? An estimated $40 billion, according to several independent analysts. That's $37.5 billion initially set aside to run the 22 agencies marked for inclusion in the new department, as well as an additional $2 billion for costs associated with starting a new agency from scratch. Those figures are disputed by the Bush administration, which claims it can run the department on the budgeted $37.5 billion.

Hard-won victory
The President's initial proposal for the department, issued to Congress June 18, 2002: "I propose to create a new Department by substantially transforming the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland."

As soon as the President made his announcement, the fighting began. Democrats, while supportive of a plan to protect the country, were outraged at the insistence by the President and his Republican allies that he should have the power to hire, fire and discipline any staff member for any reason — because, he reasoned, the sensitivity of this department's mission demanded fast action. Democrats, along with union leaders, argued the employees of HSD should be given the same rights — reviews, protections — as any other federal employees.

The argument went back and forth for months, until finally, last week, in the wake of the congressional Democrats' woeful defeat at the hands of voters, and faced with threats from President Bush to extend the term "as long as it took" to pass the legislation, leaders on both sides returned to the bargaining table. The end result, currently under debate in the Senate, would provide unions with a "consultation" prior to any staffing changes. The President, however, would maintain ultimate control over employees.

Questions of security
Even as the Senate conflict comes to a close, battles still rage over security. Not national security — personal security. Critics of the HSD proposal say the legislation would permit the government virtually unfettered access to private information exchanged between U.S. citizens. The computer system in question is called "Total Information Awareness" and it is being run out of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is in turn part of the Information Awareness Office. The software, according to reports by the New York Times, would allow government surveillance of e-mail, credit card and banking records and travel documents. While more extensive legislation is needed to completely open the floodgates of heretofore private information, wording in the current HSD bill is enough to amend the Privacy Act of 1974, which put limits on what the government could do with personal information. Civil libertarians say the IAO program infringes on basic privacy rights, while proponents of the system say it only takes necessary measures — investigating suspicious spending or email threats — to make everyone as safe as possible.