America embarks on an experiment with the formal launching this week of a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, the center of the largest federal government reorganization since creation of the Defense Department in 1947. Now, as then, the move was a reaction to threats and an attempt to better coordinate and manage a response. And now, more than then, American civil liberties also hang in the balance.
Nominated Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge, undoubtedly the best choice to complete the organizational work he already has started, faces a huge challenge at a hugely challenging time. He faces not a threat of war, but a threat of further attacks in a war already declared against America. He has to face that threat while trying to merge 22 agencies with 170,000 employees and $40 billion in budgets into a smoothly functioning unit despite the Washington turf and power struggles likely to erupt.
And he starts that struggle with flawed enabling legislation, the interest-laced Homeland Security Act approved by Congress. In addition to measures protecting such special interests as pharmaceutical firms and former airport screening companies, there are measures that let companies hide environmental or public health threats behind a department-provided security mantle.
Creation of the new department is a positive step in the war on terror. If Ridge can craft his new domain without losing its mission in the clutter of organizational efforts, he has a chance - even without inclusion of the CIA and FBI in his agency - to strengthen the intelligence analysis and distribution that could prove key to preventing future attacks.
But in so doing, he and his successors and colleagues must take care not to erode the civil liberties that define the nation they are trying to protect. While information is the key to better domestic security, there is danger in the government's increased ability to tap and monitor the telephone and e-mail conversations of all Americans, to trace their financial transactions and peer into their medical records.
Cato Institute defense analyst Charles Pena, for one, fears that Homeland Security Act creation of a new centralized database of such information, in a new "Information Awareness Office" that would reside in the Pentagon rather than Ridge's new agency, would be a step toward a surveillance state. "The first responsibility of the federal government is to protect its citizens, but not at their expense," he argued. "In the name of homeland security and defending against terrorism, the ends do not justify the means."
The National Environmental Trust worries about security at chemical facilities, but also worries that companies can shield knowledge of environmental transgressions by simply voluntarily reporting them to Homeland Security and claiming exemption from public reporting under the security act. Senate measures to restrict such shielding were deleted in the push to win agreement on the bill.
And the strongly partisan fight over Civil Service and union protections for Homeland Security workers added another level of complexity. "The good news is that the logjam holding up the legislation has ended," said Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier. But, he added, "The new homeland security agency still needs three crucial ingredients: additional resources, leadership and a concerted effort to actively engage a work force that has been waiting for months to know its role in this new agency. Without these elements in place, the new agency will not succeed."
In submitting his plan for a new department he had once opposed before deciding to make it a top agenda item, President Bush termed the agency "a unified, effective response" to the threat of terrorism. It is indeed a step toward that, although the key intelligence-gathering operations of the CIA and FBI remain outside the fold and efficiency remains, for now, a goal rather than an accomplishment.
Its impact on America will be defined in the coming months. There will undoubtedly be a watchdog role for Congress and the courts, but even greater vigilance will be needed by a citizenry with its freedoms, as well as its safety, at stake.