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Department's Mission Was Undermined From Start
One stark example was the White House's blockade of a Ridge-supported plan to secure large chemical plants. After Sept. 11, Whitman had worked with Ridge on a modest effort to require high-risk plants -- especially the 123 factories where a toxic release could endanger at least 1 million people -- to enhance security. But industry groups warned Bush political adviser Karl Rove that giving new regulatory power to the Environmental Protection Agency would be a disaster.
"We have a similar set of concerns," Rove wrote to the president of BP Amoco Chemical Co.
In an interagency meeting shortly before DHS's birth, White House budget official Philip J. Perry, who also happens to be Cheney's son-in-law, declared the Ridge-Whitman plan dead.
"Tom and I would just throw our hands up in frustration over that issue," Whitman recalled.
And not just that issue. Whitman said that Ridge was often stymied inside the White House: "He got gazumped a couple of times."
In his new job, the gazumping would continue.
The Push and the Pushback
On Jan. 24, 2003, Ridge was sworn in as the first secretary of homeland security; Bush hailed him as a "superb leader who has my confidence." Four days later, Ridge learned from the president's State of the Union address that a new intelligence center for tracking terrorists -- which he had expected to be the hub of DHS's dot-connecting efforts -- would not be controlled by DHS.
Ridge and his aides thought the center was one of the key reasons the department had been created, to prevent the coordination failures that helped produce Sept. 11. Not only had the White House undercut Ridge, it also let him find out about his defeat on television.
"We watched it and thought: 'What the hell are we doing here?' " recalled John Rollins, who became chief of staff for the new DHS intelligence section. "The White House did not support us," said one of Ridge's top advisers. "That occurred repeatedly. It was if the White House created us and then set out to marginalize us."
The first battle over DHS came when the White House tried to exile it from Washington. Initially, Daniels proposed to let cities around the country bid to host the new department as a cost-saving measure. Then the White House tried to park DHS outside the Beltway in Chantilly.
Just before the department's official March 1 start date, the Chantilly deal fell through and DHS ended up in a decrepit Navy complex on Nebraska Avenue in Upper Northwest, several miles from the rest of federal Washington. Top DHS officials had to share desks in a "gulag-like" hangar at Building 3; the White House initially told them it was temporary quarters until a new "campus" was commissioned. But the talk of a new home for the department quickly stopped.
Rollins recalled the opening days as "absolute chaos." In his intelligence office, there was no undersecretary, no assistant secretary and just 10 aides out of the 300 the office was supposed to hire. Many of the new DHS offices had been picked apart by the departments from which they came; Rollins had moved with the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, one of three of the center's 150 staffers to make the switch.
At headquarters, Ridge had only a few dozen staffers to oversee a department that was suddenly responsible for everything from livestock inspections to floodplain mapping to the national registry for missing pets. He was also besieged by congressional inquiries, not to mention day-to-day security responsibilities; his first "orange alert" occurred 17 days into the department's existence. "Everyone," Daniels recalled, "empathized with Tom's near-impossible assignment."
Ridge radiated good cheer, and just about everyone liked him. But many senior DHS officials thought Ridge was outmatched. "He had no managerial ability," said one. "He was such a nice guy, and totally unwilling to knock heads and tick people off." Lawlor, Ridge's chief of staff, was more of a head-knocker, but he lasted only seven months. Former Navy secretary Gordon R. England, Ridge's deputy, was gone by the fall.
"It was one of the world's worst leadership teams," said a former White House official involved in the start-up.
Some of Ridge's problems were structural. The White House and Congress had left his powers unclear, and many key tasks had to be shared with other departments under contradictory laws and presidential directives. In some ways, Ridge's aides came to believe, they had even less power than when they were mere presidential staffers.
"You had a platform at the White House. Whenever you called a meeting at the White House, the other agencies came," Susan Neely said. "Now we're over at the department and the agencies didn't come; they came up with all sorts of excuses."
Ridge said he constantly faced "aggravating, annoying pushback," and he did not enjoy pushing back against the pushback. He let Tommy Thompson, the HHS secretary, have his stockpile back; he let FEMA keep its name. He could not even persuade agency heads to work out of a single DHS command post for a counterterrorism exercise. "Why the hell shouldn't you be in a single operations center?" Ridge asked.
The strongest pushback came from the Justice Department, where the mention of DHS inspired jokes about duct tape and chartreuse threat levels. Justice officials believed DHS had "too much focus on marketing and not enough on substantive delivery," in the words of one aide to then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. "They were consumed with their public perception," said Mark Corallo, an Ashcroft spokesman.
Indeed, one of the new department's biggest intramural furors was a branding fight with the FBI. It began when the director of a new DHS agency known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- or ICE -- decided to keep the catchy acronym but change the name to Investigation and Criminal Enforcement. The FBI, it turned out, had some proprietary feelings about the word "investigation."
"Over my dead body," Mueller, the FBI director, told one aide.
Loy had sensed trouble. "When I saw that one go by, I didn't have the time. . . . I said, 'Oh . . . surely, for God's sake, we're not going to waste time on that,' " Loy remembered. "But it just festered." In fact, Mueller brought the matter to the White House. "It got to the top, sadly," Loy said.
At the FBI's insistence, the White House had already forced ICE to give up its Operation Greenquest program investigating terrorism financing -- and forced Ridge to sign a memo pledging to keep his department away from similar investigations. But Ridge thought this spat was just silly; nobody was going to mistake ICE for the FBI.
Nevertheless, the White House told Ridge to back off.
"Folks at higher levels than yours truly said, 'We side with the FBI,' " Ridge recalled. "We thought it was as clear as the nose on your face. Bob [Mueller] disagreed. Bob prevailed."
Still Undone: Infrastructure Plan
In the early days, recalled former DHS inspector general Clark Kent Ervin, Ridge's senior staff meetings were dominated by "weekly, even daily talk about structure, 'branding' the department, coming up with a mission statement and bringing a sense of esprit de corps." But, Ervin recalled, "there wasn't a lot of focus on substance and specifics -- exactly what do we do and how? What are key vulnerabilities?"
Early on, Ridge and his aides realized they had no way to focus on long-term planning because they had lost the battle for a policy shop, a decision Ridge aide Robert B. Stephan called "the kiss of death." In the summer of 2003, Ridge asked Stephan to troubleshoot the flawed first draft of the department's National Response Plan for catastrophes. Stephan did not have a staff. "I'm like this magician up on stage, spinning plates, and I'm so far from the first plate that I'm not sure it's spinning anymore," he recalled.
Eventually, Ridge named Stephan, a retired Air Force colonel, to head a modest "integration staff" that would focus on big-picture thinking. But Stephan spent much of his time troubleshooting problems such as the department's plan to protect America's "critical infrastructure." The first DHS draft arrived a year late, and was little more than a list, with no analysis of what was most vulnerable or vital.
"The most common term used to describe DHS was 'frustration,' " said Harris N. Miller, who headed industry's Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security. "Most of the world didn't see it until Katrina. We saw it all the time."
The infrastructure plan is still not done, which prompted the Sept. 11 commission to argue in a report card earlier this month, "It is time we stopped talking about priorities, and actually set some."
For all practical purposes, the department's real policy shop was in the White House, where the Homeland Security Council oversaw almost every detail of its work. The Washington Post reviewed one memo to DHS with a lengthy checklist of items the White House wanted regular updates about, including uniforms for border guards, the curriculum for teaching border inspections, the selection of a single firearm for DHS training academies and "batch processing" for new hires.
"White House staff micromanaged the department in the worst of all ways," Lawlor said. Loy called the White House's involvement "very much a heavy process."
After a December 2003 presidential directive outlined a new program of preparedness planning for DHS, the White House took the lead in deciding what scenarios the department was supposed to prepare for. A group led by White House aide David Howe produced a list of 15 likely catastrophes, including a nuclear dirty bomb and a Category 5 hurricane. It was an obvious job for DHS, but the White House did not trust the department to execute it.
Ridge's lack of influence inside the administration became painfully clear after an off-message moment on Memorial Day 2004. Ashcroft had taken to the airwaves warning of a dire terrorist threat, while Ridge had been publicly reassuring. The president took Ashcroft's side, according to sources in DHS and the Justice Department, and ordered Ridge to back down.
"There was an attitude in [the White House] that the department couldn't do anything right, that the department was not competent, and that carried through on almost everything you tried to do," one of Ridge's senior advisers complained.
Ridge's Plan Hits a Dead End
From his first day at DHS, Ridge pushed to create what he called "mini-me's," eight regional directors who would manage the department's assets in their areas during a crisis. It was Ridge's one major effort to put his own organizational stamp on DHS, and it was meant to ensure better preparedness for a disaster, the thinking being that "you can't plan a response in Los Angeles out of Washington, D.C.," Lawlor said. With hurricanes in mind, Ridge wanted one region to have headquarters in New Orleans.
Like so many DHS initiatives, Ridge's regions plan went nowhere.
Lawlor wrote the first draft, giving the mini-me's full control over the department's various fiefdoms within their regions. "That went over like a lead balloon," Ridge recalled. The opposition was led by some of Ridge's own deputies, such as FEMA's Michael D. Brown, who appealed to the White House.
Ridge worked hard to come up with a more acceptable regional structure, and he repeatedly announced at staff meetings that it was about to be unveiled. But the White House kept declining to approve the idea, and the impasse became increasingly embarrassing for Ridge. "On numerous occasions the secretary and deputy were saying: 'There's nothing more important than getting this regional structure set. We're going to roll it out next week,' " Ervin recalled.
By the time Lawlor left DHS in the fall of 2003, he had already concluded the plan was dead. "The White House killed it," he said. It was "too difficult of a political nut to crack" for the White House, Brown believed, since it would require DHS agencies to close their existing regional offices.
But Ridge, usually conflict-averse, continued to pursue his regions war. He sent Loy to the White House for another pitch, and even persuaded budget director Joshua B. Bolten to arrange a special appeal overseen by Cheney. Ridge decided to leave the department after Bush's reelection, but he left a memo for his successor pushing his regions plan, among other changes.
Ridge and Loy knew the department had lingering problems, and they left behind an array of reorganization ideas, from an intelligence directorate to a chief medical officer to a policy shop. Ridge's successor, Chertoff -- a former prosecutor who was Bush's second choice after former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik withdrew -- launched a sweeping "second-stage review" of DHS in February, and soon adopted almost all of their proposals.
Except the regions plan.
Chertoff said he concluded that Ridge's pet project would be a "disaster," further dividing a fragmented DHS into regional silos. But Chertoff agreed with Ridge that DHS needed to be much readier for the next catastrophe.
"I wasn't happy about where we were on preparedness," he said.
The next catastrophe was on the way. And DHS wasn't ready.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
FEMA's war with DHS