Homeland security director asserts power, says he'll streamline agencies

Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told local officials Thursday that he has the authority and the ear of the President to implement his initiatives, which may include realigning federal agencies with homeland defense responsibilities.

Ridge, speaking before the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he speaks with Bush one to four times a day, and he likened his role to that of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who does not have authority over the National Security Council but can influence the President.

"I certainly have access. ... I know I've got the authority, and the President has made that clear," Ridge said. "Right now, I don't need statutory authority to do what the President wants me to do."

The Conference of Mayors has endorsed a plan to make the White House Office of Homeland Security a full-fledged Cabinet-level position, with budgetary authority and direct control over a slew of federal agencies involved in anti-terrorism efforts.

Ridge assured Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and others that he would be their advocate on homeland security. And he said one outcome of his long-term effort to streamline the 46 federal agencies and 13 or so departments working to protect the homeland could be "the realignment of some of those agencies."

Ridge said representatives from the Health and Human Services, Justice and Defense departments soon will meet with local officials to assess their emergency-response systems and their law enforcement capabilities. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the best body to coordinate emergency preparedness at the local, state and federal levels.

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