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SECURITY OVERHAUL HITS CLOSE TO HOME

The Buffalo Niagara region has more than its share of potential targets for attacks by terrorists.

So when the new Homeland Security Department gets up and running, among its top goals will be safeguarding the region's five Niagara River bridges -- including the International Bridge at Black Rock -- protecting the hydro plants straddling the Niagara Gorge and strengthening Canadian border security.

Key homeland defense moves have been made locally and nationally in the 14 months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The government federalized baggage inspectors at Buffalo Niagara International and other airports and installed immigration entry-exit checks at all border crossings.

Weaving all these programs into the smoothly operating whole that President Bush ardently sought will take years, perhaps many years.

Creating a "cohesive culture is a multiyear effort that needs consistent and persistent effort from the top," said Comptroller General David Walker, who runs the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The initiative is not without its critics -- labor leaders, civil rights activists and freedom-of-information advocates.

Democratic leaders, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, warn the act makes no provision for guarding the nation's seaports, nuclear facilities or biological warfare targets.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., complained the bill doesn't protect factories that work with toxic or volatile chemicals, facilities that abound in Niagara Falls as well as New Jersey.

Clinton voted for the bill because, she said, it "is a step forward."

She and many others in Congress criticized Bush for failing to provide funds for local police and firefighters -- called "first responders" in the bill.

Clinton said creating a new department without providing the money to run it is "shameful."

The Bush administration actually cut funds from a program to expand the ranks of local firefighters.

Locally, eight federal agencies involving hundreds of employees will be affected by the new law -- from the person who handles your passport application to the worker who maintains the Border Patrol's TV surveillance cameras on the Niagara River.

Nationally, 166,000 employees in 22 agencies will be affected.

The FBI and CIA, the two agencies most severely criticized for laxity in the wake of 9/1 1, are not involved. Even so, the act will lead to the largest government reorganization since the Defense Department was created 47 years ago.

Nearly a half-century later, the government is still wrestling with rivalries between military services.

Ridge is likely nominee

Bush's version of the bill tries to bridge the swagger and antagonism between the FBI and CIA and the rest of the agencies in the department by requiring that the department agencies put liaison personnel into the FBI and CIA, as well as other secretive intelligence warrens.

Requiring all these turf-conscious officials to share information with the new department in a timely manner will be the job of Bush's putative new department secretary, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

Ridge, a former congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, is likely to be nominated when Bush signs the bill, and is expected to sail through the confirmation process.

"This bill has much to do with structural reorganization and very little to do with enacting real steps that will protect our nation against terrorist attacks," Clinton said.

It will be Bush's and Ridge's job to put muscle and ligaments on this bare skeleton, which was given a grudging final passage by the Senate.

Homeland Defense will be the government's third-largest department, after Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services.

A few weeks after Bush signs the legislation, the administration will disclose to Congress the timing for each agency to enter the new department. The doors officially open 60 days after Bush signs the bill.

There is as yet no designated headquarters, flag or logo, much less uniforms for its personnel.

For civil libertarians, there are things to like and dislike in this bill.

Congress made plain that it does not want a national identity card. Congress also wrote into the bill sections barring the military from becoming involved in local police work without an emergency declaration by the president.

But the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the department puts little or no stress on freedom of information while creating a new bureaucracy to manage official secrets.

Companies get immunity

Because of a broad new exemption from freedom-of-information laws, the committee said, "companies that share information with the government not only gained the promise the government will keep critical infrastructure information secret, they also gained immunity from liability if the information reveals wrongdoing and gained immunity from antitrust suits for sharing the information with the government and each other."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., warned that if a company voluntarily submits information that its factory is leaching pollutants into ground water, "that information could no longer be used in a civil or criminal proceeding" brought under state law.

The bill will also criminalize agency disclosures of information without the consent of the businesses that passed on the information to Homeland Security.

The committee's legislative director, Rebecca Daugherty, said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied for years to obtain these sanctions against disclosure.

Joe Rubin, lobbyist for the Chamber, said it did indeed press Congress for these provisions. But Rubin said the protections were needed to get industry to share with the government problems it might have with "critical infrastructure."

The Chamber official noted that 90 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure, including electric and other utilities, are privately held, and said government will need industry's cooperation to ensure they are defended.

He said charges that the Chamber wants companies to have immunity from criminal acts are "ludicrous."

At least two-thirds of the department's 165,000 employees had civil service or union contract protection, or both. Bush insisted and got the power to waive these provisions if necessary to forge a smoothly operating department.

Reps. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said they amended the bill to provide affected workers a cooling-off period, and the right of appeal if they were moved or downgraded in the new department.

Labor isn't happy

But labor leaders reacted angrily to the bill.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands of workers in the new department, warned the government can do what it wants to the workers after a 60-day appeal period expires.

Kelley said Bush is likely to abuse this power, judging from "the shameless anti-union rhetoric used in the midterm elections."

Beth Motin, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 32,000 workers in the new department, said the Quinn-Shays amendment "damaged" civil service and union rights.

Quinn's spokesman, Michael Tetuan, said the union leaders just don't understand the way the law will work.

The bill also gives the administration tough new sanctions against agency employees, particularly those with police powers, who "willfully" misinform or withhold information from Congress or the agency.

They will be subject to FBI-style disciplines, not the old rules entitling them to grievances or arbitration. FBI discipline is carried out by the bureau, is internal, and with no appeal save an expensive one to a federal appellate court.

Virtually no employee survives FBI sanctions.

The government is sharing few particulars of its plans with the public.

The White House homeland security spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, did not return reporters' phone calls to comment.

James Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told senior INS officials that "a detailed organizational structure has yet to be finalized." He said "there are not many DHS implementation details available."

INS is likely to be the most drastically affected of all agencies. It will be broken into two main bureaus, covering immigration services and enforcement.

Congress was so angry at the INS for letting terrorists slip through its net that the bill forbids the INS from ever being re-created for any reason.

Other organizations such as the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service and the Transportation Security Agency are being shifted intact into the new department.

'Uncertainty and anxiety'

Even so, the lack of hard news and abridgement of job rights have made some employees uneasy.

"There's uncertainty and anxiety of not knowing what changes are coming," said Kevin Feely, president of the National Treasury Employees Union Buffalo chapter, which represents about 260 customs inspectors in upstate New York.

What does it mean for customs inspectors if the new department allows the flexibility to move people around for extended periods of time to deal with emergencies? Feely asked.

"We've got families," he said. "We're regular employees here."

"Most of the guys come up to me and ask me: 'What's the status?' 'What's going on?' " said Scott Wengewicz, the local union representative for the National Border Patrol Council, and a Border Patrol agent for eight years. "They have families and bills like everyone else. They just want to know what their future is going to be like. How radical will the changes be?"

At the same time, many Buffalo-area employees agree that putting these agencies together could be beneficial, particularly when it comes to better communication and sharing services.

"It will be good because we'll all be under one boss," Wengewicz said. "The main thing is protecting the border. That's all anyone wants to do. It's just making sure it gets done right."

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey, Washington Bureau assistant Diana C. Moore and News wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com