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Department's Mission Was Undermined From Start
But some of the department's strongest supporters are disgusted by what it has achieved with its $40 billion annual budget. Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), who proposed a new department even before Sept. 11, said he was warned by several top CEOs that the mega-merger would require quick and decisive leadership. DHS, he said, never got it.
"The implementation has been a huge disappointment," Thornberry said.
Ultimately, Ridge and his team came to see their searing experience as a classic Washington morality play of entrenched bureaucracy resisting change.
"The notion that everyone was going to join hands and sing 'Kumbaya,' I don't think anybody in our leadership expected that to happen," Ridge said. "And it didn't."
'Zero Interest' in New Department
The White House had plenty of warning about potential failings of a new department -- it had been doing the warning. "Creating a Cabinet post doesn't solve the problem," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said in March 2002.
Before Sept. 11, a host of blue-ribbon terrorism commissions had recommended new bureaucratic alignments, culminating with the May 2001 finding by a panel chaired by former senators Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) that the nation had a "fragmented and inadequate" homeland defense apparatus. In response, Vice President Cheney ordered a "national preparedness review," focused on the catastrophic possibility of an attack employing weapons of mass destruction. "They knew the government was not well configured to deal with this," former White House aide Frank J. Cilluffo recalled.
But Cheney opposed the concept of a new department as a big-government mistake, several aides recalled. And Steve Abbott, the retired admiral he picked to head the review, did not start work until a few days before Sept. 11.
After the attacks, Bush named Ridge, Pennsylvania's popular Republican governor, to head a new Office of Homeland Security in the White House. With the office just beginning, "there was zero interest in the White House in setting up a new department," a senior Ridge aide said. When Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) argued the case at a White House meeting that October, Bush was dismissive, saying Ridge could do the job out of the West Wing.
But Ridge found it difficult to get things done. In late December, he took a modest proposal to a Cabinet-level "principals" meeting -- a new "border-centric" agency that would bring together immigration officers, customs agents and other border-related personnel then scattered around the government. No Cabinet secretaries supported him.
"The only person at the time that thought it was a good idea was yours truly," Ridge recalled.
The lesson his staff took away was the need for secrecy: When bureaucracies were informed of potential threats to their empires, they tended to resist. "Everybody realized the agencies were not going to look at mission first, they were going to look at turf first," recalled Bruce M. Lawlor, a National Guard major general working for Ridge.
But soon the White House began to contemplate reversing its position. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties were upset by Bush's refusal to let Ridge testify as a presidential aide, and Lieberman's bill to create a new department was gaining momentum. While many Republicans were leery about a vast new bureaucracy, they did not want to cede the homeland security issue to the Democrats.