President Bush urged Congress yesterday to quickly approve a new Department of Homeland Security, arguing that it would help bring sophisticated security measures like those used in the nation's capital to cities and states across the country.
"The new department will work, of course, with our state and local authorities to avert attacks, to plan for emergencies and to respond," Bush said. "We've got to make sure our first responders are well equipped and trained and organized for their duties. You do a fine job here in Washington. There are some places that need help, and the new department will help first responders."
Bush made his remarks in a speech at a District government auditorium at One Judiciary Square in Northwest Washington, after touring the Joint Operations Command Center at police headquarters across the street.
Hundreds of surveillance cameras from throughout the region feed into the command center, which was activated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and during the recent string of sniper shootings in the Washington area.
The command center allows police and rescue officials to coordinate their responses during protests, terrorist incidents or major crimes. Computers also track incidents reported each day and provide three-dimensional images of city streetscapes, complete with markers showing where police are positioned.
A software program run at the command center helped police set up rapid dragnets designed to catch the sniper suspects last month, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey told the president.
Most of the cameras belong to federal law enforcement officials and state and local transportation agencies, though 14 belonging to D.C. police have become intensely controversial at the D.C. Council. Some council members have threatened to seek their removal, calling them invasions of privacy and poor substitutes for heavier police deployment in the city's neighborhoods.
Bush declined to comment on that local debate, saying, "You can talk to the mayor about that."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) supports use of the cameras, within guidelines drawn up by police officials.
In other remarks, Bush praised the version of the homeland security bill that has been passed by the House and expressed confidence that the Senate would follow its lead in its lame-duck session. Democrats in the Senate have fought to include in the bill work rules favored by union leaders, but the defection of three moderate senators appeared to push Bush toward victory on the bill yesterday.
"It looks like it's going to come out of the Senate, I hope," Bush said. "To meet the threats, I must be able, and future presidents must be able, to move people and resources where they're needed, and to do it quickly, without being forced to comply with a thick book of rules."
Bush also praised Williams and Ramsey for making Washington a safer city.
"Mr. Mayor, you're doing a great job for the city of Washington, D.C," Bush said. "I feel safe living here. And so does my family. And so do a lot of families, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people on the front line of making sure that this city is buttoned up, dealing with the threats we face."
Williams led both Bush and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge through the command center. He also introduced them to the audience before the president's speech. The mayor did not comment directly on Bush's drive to pass his version of the homeland security bill, but he praised both Bush and Ridge.
"Governor Ridge and the Bush administration know it's essential to work with officials at the state and local level to ensure that our nation is prepared to respond to future incidents," he said.
Williams also said that he used some private moments with Bush to lobby for passage of the city's $5.8 billion budget bill, which has languished in Congress for months.
The mayor said afterward that he got no commitment of help from Bush, but the city's dealings with the federal government are off to a good start after last week's elections, which gave the president increased political clout and the Republicans new dominance over Congress.
"We want to have a good relationship," the mayor said. "The District's success is his success, is the country's success."