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Bush’s plan resurfaces old dilemmas

Well before Sept. 11, there was a large handful of plans for an executive-level homeland security agency. Now the same notions — and the same political thicket — have resurfaced in a completely changed world, writes MSNBC’s Jon Bonne.
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The mandate could not be more clear: an essential need for the U.S. government to develop “an organized and unified capability for a timely, coordinated response by Federal agencies to a terrorist threat or act.” That call to action came in January 2001, and like so many other counterterror efforts before Sept. 11, it never bore fruit.

Those particular words were in the Clinton administration’s Concept of Operations plan, or CONPLAN, a sweeping proposal by six Clinton Cabinet members to streamline the government’s myriad programs to fight terror. Released in the final days of the last administration, the plan became a blueprint for a domestic defense structure — with the FBI leading prevention efforts and the Federal Emergency Management Agency heading up response to any terror strike.

It was one of a large handful of plans to tackle homeland security before Sept. 11.

Even President Bush’s proposal Thursday night to form a massive Cabinet-level agency was all but a copy of another January 2001 proposal, this one from the blue-ribbon panel led by former Sen. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, who suggested the same thing.

Just months before 9/11, the Hart-Rudman proposal was one of at least six floating around Washington calling for an executive-level post for domestic defense.

At the time, momentum for the subject was hard to come by. Just 16 months later, the same notions have resurfaced in a completely changed world. As Bush put it in his Thursday night speech, the United States is “a different nation today - sadder and stronger, less innocent and more courageous.”

Prior plans
For those lawmakers who pushed to enact Hart-Rudman and the other proposals, the Bush plan is a bittersweet vindication.

Though proposed amid a radically different background, many offered unflinching warnings at the time about the need to coordinate antiterror plans. “It takes a lot of intelligence on a lot of different levels to glom all this together,” Rep. Ike Skelton, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and author of one proposal, told MSNBC in April 2001. “Ideally, you’d be able to thwart every potential terrorist.”

A Senate proposal, arguing that “this country currently lacks leadership in the area of preparedness for acts of terrorism within the United States,” suggested a Tom Ridge-like job be created as a deputy attorney general post.

But that outlook came in the ever-fading shadow of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996 and the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Outside a very limited circle of national-security Cassandras, there was little enthusiasm to pursue a homeland defense agenda.

No more. Lawmakers are now scrambling to set up a panel to oversee the process of setting up what the White House boldly touted as the most sweeping overhaul of the federal ranks since Harry Truman. It is already clear that the charge will be led by at least some of those who stood to offer early warnings — folks such as Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who introduced a bill in March 2001 that proposed the very scenario the president offered this week. Hart and Rudman are more than likely to make frequent appearances.

Avoiding the octopus
The CONPLAN and other proposals served as an effort to sort out an alphabet soup of agencies and personnel. That task remains just as important for the new agency Bush hopes to create.

In the best-case White House scenario, the new department will avoid the various bureaucratic tangles that mired not only the earlier proposals but also Ridge and his staff. It will appease those on Capitol Hill who railed against Ridge’s sub-Cabinet level post as a way to skirt congressional oversight.

But the key to that success will lie in precisely which agencies the administration hopes to sweep into this new omnibus creature, and what they offer in return.

Some prime targets thus far are logical.

The Coast Guard has suffered an identity crisis for years, caught between its military trappings and its law enforcement role; the newly formed Transportation Security Agency was an at-times awkward fit under the largely regulatory Department of Transportation; the Secret Service, while its logical history dictated placement under Treasury, had taken on many duties that made it an imperfect fit. And the much-maligned Immigration and Naturalization Service is likely content to be retooled in any way that takes the heat off it for its numerous slip-ups in handling the visa status and entry of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Others, such as the Justice Department’s Office for Domestic Preparedness, were already targeted to be shuffled around under Clinton administration plans.

And agencies not yet mentioned in Bush’s plans, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are also likely to face either incorporation or a drastic change in mission. ATF’s current dilemma, for example, is apparent right on the front of its Web site, which includes both a security warning to federal explosives licensees and a request for comment on whether the Primitivo wine grape should be considered the same as Zinfandel.

Beware synergy
But as Bush walks down this path, many toes remain exposed and ready to be stepped on. Even Bush acknowledged first thing Friday that his new creation would be subject to a serious “turf battle.”

With nearly 170,000 employees already slated to be absorbed by the new agency — 20 percent more than the current Justice Department ranks, and almost 15 percent more than Treasury’s workforce — the potential is there for it to become a flailing octopus, its director spending too much time keeping the various appendages in sync. If too few end up assimilated, it risks becoming the bureaucratic version of the Island of Misfit Toys, home to a motley handful of offices that just don’t fit anywhere else.

And there are certain homeland offices that clearly can’t be subsumed, such as the Pentagon’s newly formed Northern Command, set to debut this October and charged with the military end of domestic defense.

Bush would charge his new agency with creating “a single daily picture of threats against our homeland.” Ever the mindful business executive, the president has sought opportunities to develop synergy by bringing together all the disparate governmental strands meant to protect Americans and American soil.

A valuable lesson from the business world might apply — one that questions whether the whole, as merger talk would have it, inevitably becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Such was the impetus behind the merger of AOL and Time Warner, initially touted as a catch-all creation that would prove to be the next-generational model of a media conglomerate. With its debt status edging near junk bond levels, its 60-percent tumble in share value and its continued upheaval in the boardroom, the once-blessed corporate marriage has prompted a firm reconsideration whether bigger is indeed better.

For those around the Oval Office, that lesson is worth keeping in mind.