Bin Laden Reappears On Bush's Agenda

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 4, 2005

When President Bush made a rare mention yesterday of the country's most wanted terrorist--Osama bin Laden--he returned to a person and issue that dominated the presidential election but has largely vanished from Bush's speeches afterward.

In the four months since his reelection, Bush has focused speeches on Social Security, limiting lawsuits and Iraq, but said little about al Qaeda or measures needed to head off attacks in the United States that had dominated his campaign speeches. He did not say the word "terrorism" in his inaugural address.

White House officials said the president is simply making the transition from a wartime candidate to a second-term president with a robust domestic agenda. But Democrats--and a few Republicans--said Bush is not putting enough emphasis on securing ports, borders and airlines from another attack.

At a congressional hearing yesterday, Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.) said he was "deeply disappointed" that Bush is not fighting for the large increase in border patrol agents called for by the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "We need more agents, and we need to do a smarter and better job," Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said at the hearing.

"I've been disappointed that more emphasis has not been put on homeland security because the threat is genuine and real," said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. "We must, must accelerate our efforts to protect the homeland. . . . There really is a need for a greater sense of urgency throughout the government, and the president has to provide that leadership."

White House officials said they are doing significant work to improve the Homeland Security Department and tighten security, but see little need for Bush to discuss it in public. "Just because the threat level may not be going up doesn't mean we aren't taking additional measures to strengthen the homeland from terrorist attack," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Bush's appearances yesterday stood in contrast to his otherwise laserlike public focus on restructuring Social Security and limiting lawsuits. "We're on a constant hunt for bin Laden, we're keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding," Bush said as he swore in Michael Chertoff as homeland security secretary. "We cannot afford to become complacent." With Chertoff by his side, Bush said preventing bin Laden from striking the United States again is "the greatest challenge of our day."

After talking, as a presidential candidate, almost every day about protecting the country from terrorists, Bush has since spent little time publicly promoting initiatives to tighten homeland security and even less exhorting Congress to move quickly to enact new safeguards.

Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman and member of the 9/11 commission, said the intelligence bill's passage in December "doesn't mean we completed the task. There's much unfinished business before us, some of it the most grave and chilling."

Roemer said the administration should focus on securing nuclear material, tightening border security, modernizing law enforcement agency technology, protecting ports and energy grids, and revamping the homeland security funding formula that underfinances vulnerable states including New York. "He's certainly been giving Social Security a great deal of time when we do have many unresolved and pending national security issues that are front and center."

Warren Rudman, a former GOP senator who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on homeland security, said Bush has no choice but to focus his public appearances on Social Security. "You cannot have multiple messages out there when you have important issues," he said. Still, he added: "I think it is vital the administration and others keep pressure on Congress to appropriate sufficient funds, in particular to make sure first responders are properly equipped. I never had any doubt we will have" another terrorist attack.

Bush gave the Homeland Security Department a 7 percent increase in next year's proposed budget when he is cutting virtually all other non-defense discretionary accounts. Among other things, he proposed hiring 210 more Border Patrol agents, increasing screening of cargo containers arriving in the United States and buying more radiation detection devices to prevent nuclear devices from being smuggled into the country. But the nation's police chiefs have complained about Bush's plans to cut grants to states and localities for "first responders," such as police and firefighters. Bush's budget eliminates or drastically slashes a variety of Justice Department programs to save $1.5 billion, most of them grants to local and state law enforcement.

Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton and member of the 9/11 commission, said she was not troubled that Bush does not talk about fighting terrorism as often anymore. "It's much more important to be doing it rather than talking about it," she said. "Talking about it gets people unnecessarily unnerved when they can't really do much about it." The real challenge for Bush and Chertoff, she said, is one that does not lend itself to public debate, but rather finding a way to transform the Homeland Security Department into a better-integrated agency.

At Chertoff's swearing-in, Bush cited recent reports that bin Laden asked his ally Abu Musab Zarqawi, a top organizer of terrorist attacks in Iraq, to consider striking U.S. soil. "Bin Laden's message is a telling reminder that al Qaeda still hopes to attack us on our own soil," he said.

Later in the day, Bush made a rare visit to the CIA headquarters to reassure the agency's employees after the recent reorganization of the intelligence community that they still play a key role in the fight against terrorism. "I know there's some uncertainty about what this reform means to the people of the CIA, and I wanted to assure them that the reforms will strengthen their efforts and make it easier for them to do their job, not harder," Bush told reporters afterward.

One reason there has been less talk about terrorism has been the administration's decision to keep the government's color-coded threat level system frozen at yellow, which means the nation faces an "elevated" risk, even after the Zarqawi report. "There was a belief that there was too much yo-yoing of the threat levels . . . and that people were kind of tuning out and we needed to be more careful with that," an official said.

At Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's swearing-in, President Bush said preventing another bin Laden attack is "the greatest challenge of our day."

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