WASHINGTON — The chief of congressional oversight for homeland security predicted Friday that when the dust settles on this most massive federal reorganization in half a century, those parts of the new department that do not deal directly with making and keeping the nation safe could end up elsewhere.
The Department of Homeland Security officially opened for business on Friday. Vice President Dick Cheney swore in Tom Ridge as its first secretary as President Bush looked on and the core leadership team of the new department began moving in to a secure U.S. Navy facility in northwest Washington, D.C.
Now begins the work of melding 22 agencies into a single department with a mission to defend the nation against a terrorist attack and respond to one should it occur.
"It's important always to keep in mind the ultimate objective of the Homeland Security department," Rep. Christopher Cox, chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, said in a wide-ranging interview. "It is to protect us against a weapon that looks like Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center; that looks like the Washington anthrax scare; that looks like the smallpox epidemics that are the subject of current fiction novels."
Cox said removing functions that don't belong in the department is as important to him as including those that are needed.
"I don't look at the Homeland Security Act as the tablets from Moses," said Cox, R-Calif. There could well be service aspects of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, or parts of the Coast Guard of Customs services, he said, that truly don't fit into the department's mission.
Some immigration advocates and lawmakers say they're worried service will be seen as a stepchild of the new department.
The key task of the new agency, Cox stressed, is to "coordinate better than it's ever been done before the sharing of intelligence between the intelligence community on the one hand and law enforcement on the other."
How well the department carries out that job, Cox said, will be a major focus of his committee.
Ridge held his first news conference as secretary on Friday and defended his fledgling agency against criticisms that the nation isn't really any safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. And, Ridge said, it was too early to speculate on what might be in or out of the new department down the road.
The new secretary said that although he and his core team has spent the past six months preparing for this transition, "we have a long way to go."
This department will include agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to the Transportation Security Administration to the Customs Service and Border Patrol. But it will also provide a new home to many smaller agencies, such as the part of the Department of Agriculture that does health inspections for farm products.
Cox said when his panel gets organized and under way, it will look at everything from whether the lamps are plugged in at the new headquarters to whether intelligence sharing is proceeding as it should.
The department, he said, is not simply about rearranging the furniture of existing bureaucracy.
"Hanging out a sign that reads 'under new management,' is not the essential purpose of this reorganization," he said. "It is to build a new organizational structure from the ground up to fulfill a new mission."
Cox said he's already told Ridge to be prepared for Congress to be acutely interested in this department.
The members of Cox's committee — which could number as many as 40 — have not yet been selected by House GOP and Democratic leaders. It will include the chairmen of most of the committees that now have jurisdiction over agencies moving to the new department.
Cox said he hopes to have changes to the law that created the department voted on by the House by the August recess. He said any major changes need to be done this year because in 2004 election politics could get in the way of progress.
Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Democratic Caucus, says he is most concerned that the agencies being transferred into the new department don't miss a beat during the transition period. And, he said emphasis must also be placed on the nonsecurity missions of the agencies included in the new department.
"You can't reduce the funding for the nonsecurity missions," Menendez said, adding that it's premature to talk about breaking off pieces of the new department.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services