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U.S. border proposal causes stir

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WASHINGTON — The White House Office of Homeland Security has set off a storm inside the Bush administration with a broad proposal to create an agency that would consolidate border security efforts now spread across the federal government.

According to a "border security white paper" produced late last month by aides to Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, such an agency would be called a federal border administration. It would take control of the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the border enforcement functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Agriculture's agricultural quarantine inspection program.

"Our borders today are porous and highly vulnerable to penetration by foreign terrorists," says the paper proposing the government overhaul. It goes on to note that almost a dozen federal agencies now bear responsibility for controlling the borders.

"All of these agencies have other missions besides border security, so none has security as its core institutional purpose," the paper says, recommending a "single accountable agency."

The proposal has sparked a fierce debate inside the Bush administration and drawn resistance from an array of Cabinet agencies, causing Ridge to back off from an initial effort to get the agency consolidation into the president's new budget, officials said.

Susan Neely, a spokeswoman for Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, said: "The governor is on record indicating that where there are more effective and efficient ways to secure our borders, it's something that we would be looking at. We are definitely reviewing all the options."

But she said there was "consensus" that the White House needed more time to consider various ideas. Several officials said the proposal was still under consideration and could be submitted to Congress this year.

An administration official opposed to the plan, who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "Ridge tried to push the plan through. A group of Cabinet agencies objected." He said the opponents represented a wide range of agencies, including the state, treasury, agriculture, justice and defense departments.

Officials said that Ridge began pushing the overhaul around Christmas.

The white paper produced by his staff argues that a consolidated agency would produce more unity and could mobilize rapidly.

"The record of coordination and cooperation among the separate agencies with border security responsibilities has been problematic for years and remains mixed," the paper says.

But officials from a wide spectrum of Cabinet agencies argued that the change would be too disruptive.

At the Customs Service, which is a part of the Treasury Department, reports of the proposal have circulated for weeks. Officials there are quick to point out that the agency was established in 1789 by the fifth act of the first Congress.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service falls under the purview of the Justice Department. "Since Sept. 11 we have had very strong cooperation among border agencies and law enforcement generally," said Susan Dryden, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, "and we have found that working closely together in this shared responsibility is proving very effective."

The reorganization also has proponents. Rep. William M. Thornberry, R-Texas, has introduced similar legislation. Under his plan the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be brought under the same roof as the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Border Patrol.

"These agencies are a key part of homeland security," Thornberry said. "I'm hopeful that the president will at least move in this direction in the new budget."

Ivo H. Daalder of the Brookings Institution who served at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said, "It's good to have the different functions in different departments consolidated in a single agency." He added, "The real question is whether it's the right time to reorganize as you're still thinking about the larger picture."