Tom Ridge was sworn in as the nation's first secretary for homeland security yesterday, enduring a withering attack on domestic defense policies from leading Democrats just hours into his first day on the job.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a speech at John Jay College in New York that the Bush administration is constructing "a myth of homeland security, a myth written in rhetoric, inadequate resources and a new bureaucracy. . . . The truth is we are not prepared."
Ridge shot back during his first news conference as secretary, saying "it's a very, very unfortunate characterization, because there's been a lot of extraordinary work that's gone on within the government. . . . It's not a myth that 170,000 go to work every day at the borders," airports and seaports.
Clinton's remarks, among the most slashing by any Democrat on a topic that until now has seen mostly low-intensity skirmishing, is the latest signal that Democrats will seek to make a campaign issue out of their charge that President Bush hasn't spent enough on homeland defense.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also criticized the administration yesterday, saying it "has been schizophrenic in its approach to the war on terror, doing everything it takes to fight the war overseas but pinching pennies" domestically.
Ridge said the fiscal year 2004 federal budget, which Bush will unveil soon, would include significant increases beyond the $38 billion for homeland security the president proposed for this year. Mayors and governors frustrated by what they consider inadequate federal spending on local anti-terrorist programs so far "will be pretty pleased with the dollar amounts" in the new budget, Ridge said.
He also said the department's headquarters building, whose permanent location still has not been determined, will house 800 to 1,000 employees, a smaller number than some observers had predicted. On Thursday, federal officials announced that the department would move into temporary quarters on a secure Navy facility in Northwest Washington.
Ridge said yesterday the agency's temporary headquarters would remain at the Navy telecommunications site on Nebraska Avenue for at least four to six months before a final selection is made, and he did not rule out the possibility that it would remain there. The D.C. site, which has served as a homeland security command center for most of the last year, already has high-tech communications and video-conferencing equipment, officials said.
Beginning Monday, more than 100 department employees will report to the temporary site. On March 1, about 18 of the 22 agencies that will be consolidated into the new department -- including the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service -- will start work under their new boss, though most employees will remain in their current locations.
The consolidation is the largest government reorganization in 50 years, an effort to harden the United States against terrorist strikes in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We've learned that vast oceans no longer protect us from the dangers of a new era," Bush said at a brief swearing-in ceremony for Ridge at the White House. "This government has a responsibility to confront the threat of terror wherever it is found."
Ridge, who has served as Bush's top homeland security adviser since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, announced the inauguration of the department's Web site, www.dhs.gov, and said it would serve as a source of plentiful information for members of the public, state and local officials, contractors and other federal agencies.
He asked citizens not to become overly alarmed by news media reports on terrorist threat advisories that the department issues confidentially to local law enforcement or municipal officials. Usually, U.S. officials simply want them to have the threat information for planning purposes, he said.
"It is information we send out to either law enforcement or security people just because we want them to know what we know," Ridge said. "We're going to have to learn to distinguish" types of terrorist advisories.
Ridge also announced that because of an executive order signed by Bush earlier this week, the new department's intelligence analysis office is a formal member of the U.S. intelligence community, meaning it can "task" spy satellites to collect information it needs.