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Mary McGrory

The Security Monster

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, July 18, 2002; Page A29

Homeland security means different things to different people.

To George W. Bush it means a handsome, glossy, 88-page brochure that illustrates in full color the transformation of a boy who was brought up to fear and loathe government bureaucracies into a man who proposes to create a new federal bureaucracy the size of Texas. The new department will not include the CIA and the FBI, which are principally responsible for our safety, but it will include the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture, which licenses pet shops.

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On Capitol Hill, the House Coast Guard Caucus, a group of Coast Guard veterans and supporters co-chaired by William Delahunt (D-Mass.), sees the monster as an opportunity to lift the Coast Guard out of its stepchild status. It likes to call itself the first line of defense against terrorism, since it interdicts suspicious craft. But only 15 percent of its varied activities, the most popular of which is search and rescue of floundering boats and people, are presently terror-related. Still, the caucus is ready to fight if any thought is given to lopping off non-terrorist chores. It sees the inclusion as a golden chance to get the billions of dollars required to update the Coast Guard's antiquated fleet and equipment.

Other agencies fear shedding of various functions as leading to the perennial danger of being scooped up and transferred to West Virginia and the surveillance of the most vigilant federal real estate agent, Robert C. Byrd.

The most comprehensive critic of homeland security is David Obey, a veteran House dissenter who came here from Wisconsin in 1969 as an anti-war activist. He says the very name is "spectacularly misleading." He told the Select Committee on Homeland Security that it violates the spirit not only of the Constitution but the Magna Carta, which held that the power of the purse should not be given to the executive. Among the powers given to the new director of the giant conglomeration, he pointed out, is the unprecedented power of the purse.

Obey's complaint is that the program was thrown together "by four White House hotshots" who don't know much about agencies: White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, present homeland honcho Tom Ridge and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Some of the inclusions would indeed make you think the standard was not "why?" but "why not?" An Obey example: The Agriculture Department division charged with "protecting our wine producers from the glassy winged sharp shooter," a bird apparently as predatory as al Qaeda.

The White House quartet may have been guilty of something that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance," a term he used to describe the booming market of the '90s. On the other hand, in snatching almost every agency that came up they may have provided an example of Greenspan's current coinage, "infectious greed," which he applied to the grasping corporate culture of today.

While these issues were being thrashed out, the State Department engaged in a little homeland security maneuver of its own. Foggy Bottom did not make the cut for the biggest bureaucracy of them all, but it apparently wanted to show the world that while it has been criticized for laxity in letting the wrong people in, it could be tough in letting the wrong people out -- of the State Department. Joel Mowbray, a 26-year-old reporter for the conservative weekly National Review, asked a question about emigration practices in Saudi Arabia and was pounced on by State spokesman Rick Boucher for quoting from a classified cable -- which, it so happened, had been quoted in The Washington Post the day before.

Four State security guards blocked the reporter's exit and four more waited at the door. They asked him if he had the cable on him. They didn't search him or his briefcase -- "didn't even pat me down." He's not mad; he's a celebrity, featured on talk shows morning and night. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) have promised a congressional hearing.

Wall Street has said nothing about homeland security. It is not speaking to the world. It subscribes to the theory of "a few rotten apples," which comforts only the comfortable. In fury and frustration, the Dow plunges downward.

George Bush, the bureaucrats' new best friend, is aware that for millions of small-scale investors, the term "homeland security" prompts only bitter questions: Will my 401(k) survive; or will I forget about retirement and look for two jobs? George Bush is caught between the friends of his youth in the boardroom and the everyday voter who will be going to the polls in November. So far his phenomenal polls are holding up. But they are subject to erosion, and a homeland security plan can't help him much.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company