Lawmakers may combine efforts to create homeland security agency

House and Senate lawmakers on Friday stressed the need for a separate homeland security agency, as they also indicated the need to roll various bills on the issue into one package.

During a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, lawmakers testified on the need to give Tom Ridge--the new director of the White House Office of Homeland Security--more tools to oversee various agency programs that manage efforts to protect the United States.

The following lawmakers testified: Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., Bob Smith, R-N.H., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. All have sponsored legislation to create a separate homeland security office.

Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., also introduced such a bill, S. 1534, on Thursday. He said the committee invited a representative from the Bush administration to testify, but the invitation was declined. Ridge, however, reportedly will testify at some point on the future of his office.

The White House prefers to keep the responsibility for overseeing homeland security within Ridge's office as opposed to creating a new Cabinet-level department.

Lieberman said "it is quite conceivable" to merge some provisions of Graham's bill, S. 1449, with the bill Lieberman and Specter introduced. Harman, a member of the House Intelligence Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, said the measure, H.R. 3026, she cosponsored with Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., should be combined with the Lieberman-Specter bill and all of that language included in legislation to reauthorize intelligence programs in fiscal 2002.

The lawmakers and other panelists agreed that the federal government is nowhere near ready to handle threats of terrorism like the attacks of Sept. 11.

Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug czar, said the nation's basic infrastructure and economy provides "countless targets" for terrorists, including the Internet and computer networks. "Vast quantities of critical information could be gone in the click of a cyberterrorist's mouse," he said.

McCaffrey also cited outdated technologies used by intelligence-gathering agencies like the FBI and the National Security Agency as a weakness. He said the FBI's recently announced Trilogy program, which will expand the agency's information-processing abilities, is, "by all accounts, inadequate."

"The American people would be astounded to learn that they have more flexible, capable and faster performance from their home computers than most agents can get from a computer workstation in an FBI field office," McCaffrey said.

Lieberman said Ridge "has not been given the power he needs." Still, senior Republicans remained skeptical of any legislation that would authorize the executive position so soon after President Bush created it.

"We should give the President the opportunity to reorganize here ... before we impose on him some kind of reorganization plan," said Governmental Affairs ranking member Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

"The problem is that for some time we in this town have not taken this problem seriously," Thompson added. "It's not for lack of organization."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said last week that "the President just does not see the need" for homeland security legislation.

At Friday's hearing, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said Congress should "seriously consider" the administration's advice.

"I'm impressed with the deliberate and prompt action by President Bush," he said. "They ought to determine the best way to respond."

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