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New Department's Highest Priority: Prevent Future Attacks

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2002 – Preventing future terrorist attacks will be the No. 1 priority of the new Department of Homeland Security proposed by President Bush.

White House homeland security director Tom Ridge outlined the goals of the proposed new cabinet department during testimony today before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He said the current patchwork of activities related to homeland security would transform as members of a single, integrated department.

Currently, responsibility for protecting America is dispersed among more than 100 different government organizations, he said.

Ridge has been director of the Office of Homeland Security since that office's inception in October 2001. By executive order, he's charged to lead a transition planning office under the Office of Management and Budget to create the new department.

Ridge told senators he hopes the new department will put more security officers in the field to fight terrorism and to reduce redundancy among agencies that "drain(s) away critical homeland security resources."

He likened the National Strategy for Homeland Security to the National Security Strategy as "the intellectual underpinning to guide the decision making of planners, budgeters and policy makers for years to come." Ridge said Bush is expected to announce the homeland security strategy sometime "later this summer."

The basic tenets of the homeland security strategy will be taken care of by the new Department of Homeland Security.

Because terrorism is a global threat, complete control over who and what enters the United States is essential. "We must prevent foreign terrorists from entering and bringing in instruments of terror, while at the same time facilitate the legal flow of people and goods on which our economy depends," Ridge said.

He noted five separate departments currently share responsibility for aspects of this critical mission. The new department would unify authority over the Coast Guard (Transportation Department), Customs Service (Treasury), Immigration and Naturalization Service (Justice), the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (Agriculture), and the recently created Transportation Security Administration.

"The new department would unify government's efforts to secure our borders and the transportation systems that move people from our borders to anywhere within our country within hours," Ridge said.

Although prevention is the most important goal, "we cannot assume that we will always succeed, therefore we must also prepare to recover as quickly as possible from attacks that do occur," he said.

The new department would control federal grant programs for local and state first responders such as the fire fighters, the police and emergency medical personnel. Ridge called these first responders, "the humble heroes that we kind of took for granted in our communities before 9-11 and suddenly are now a forefront of our efforts."

The new department would oversee a national incident- response plan that would consolidate existing federal government emergency response plans into one genuinely all- hazard plan, Ridge said.

The department would also see to it that all first responders have the equipment and training they need to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently.

Current efforts to counter threats from weapons of mass destruction are "too few and too fragmented," Ridge said. He said there's no doubt that if terrorists acquired such weapons they'd use them.

"We must launch a systematic national effort against these weapons that is equal in size to the threat they pose," Ridge said.

Such a national effort would incorporate state and local authorities as well. "The Department of Homeland Security would set national policy and establish guidelines for state and local governments to plan for the unthinkable and direct exercises and drills for federal state and local officials," he said.

Ridge said the proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security is "the most significant transformation of the United States government since 1947." He said he believes Congress and the Bush administration may have occasional differences of opinion in how to reach these goals, but that there is "unanimity of purpose, a shared sense of urgency, (and) a shared commitment to getting it done."

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Related Sites:
White House America Responds to Terrorism Web Site
White House Department of Homeland Security Web site
Department of Defense Homeland Security Web site

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