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Department's Mission Was Undermined From Start
When the president convened the Cabinet to reveal his plan, Ridge recalled with a wry smile, "everybody said, 'Good idea, Mr. President.' " But few of them really thought so.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to keep a handful of offices that were supposed to go to DHS, including the National Disaster Medical System and the national drug stockpile. "Make sure this doesn't happen!" he instructed Jerome M. Hauer, one of his assistant secretaries.
The plan had been put together with such speed and secrecy that after its release angry officials had to explain to the White House how their agencies really worked. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was able to beat back the total transfer of Livermore after it became clear the Gang of Five had little idea what the lab did. A similar battle unfolded over the Department of Energy's radiological detection teams, which were supposed to be folded in with FEMA. The White House had not realized that the teams consisted of employees with regular jobs who mobilized only during emergencies.
The one Cabinet official who willingly surrendered turf was Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who angered some of his aides by giving up three prized agencies. But O'Neill was skeptical as well. "It was never clear there was a vision of what homeland security ought to mean," he recalled. And many colleagues were similarly dubious. "We all expected an ineffectual behemoth," said a close aide to a Cabinet member, "and that's what we got."
GOP Lawmakers Turn Around
On Capitol Hill, Bush's allies were left tongue-tied by his abrupt shift. In late May the White House had pushed Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to oppose Lieberman's bill. Now, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) told Lieberman: "I've been having a great time explaining my enthusiastic support for a proposition I voted against two weeks ago."
Falkenrath was barraged by Hill staffers with questions he could not answer: If the Immigration and Naturalization Service was moving to the new department, why were immigration judges staying at the Justice Department? Falkenrath did not know there were immigration judges. "Every one of these staffers had some little angle on something that we hadn't thought of," he said. "I was like, 'We better go figure out what we've missed here.' "
Inside the White House, some aides were appalled by the specter of "a group of people who really didn't know a whole lot about the boxes they were moving around," as one put it. White House cybersecurity czar Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism chief sidelined by Bush after urging more decisive action against al Qaeda before Sept. 11, blasted Ridge's office with a memo about the new department's design flaws, warning that the failure to include a policy office would leave the secretary helpless to control its independent fiefdoms.
"Creating a significant policy shop is like Bureaucracy 101," said Clarke deputy Roger Cressey. "We never heard anything back."
In fact, the G-5 had considered a policy shop. But the idea had been shot down, Ridge said, in an effort to streamline the department's upper management ranks. The White House knew Hill Republicans were skittish about a big-government scheme, and Daniels, the administration's budget hawk, told conservatives he did not want the department to spend more than its 22 agencies were already spending.
"The tendency to throw money thoughtlessly on problems was on full display" after Sept. 11, Daniels recalled. "It was easy to see that could happen again."
Ridge, who had won a Bronze Star as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam, knew he might be stepping into another quagmire at DHS. "Part of him was excited," said then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. "Part of him thought it was a no-win situation."
Clearly, he could not count on unlimited financial support. And working in the White House, he was already learning he could not count on absolute political support, either.