Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday outlined a reorganization plan to create regional offices to handle information locally.
Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, Ridge said the regional offices would channel the national message from Washington, not make their own policies, and would provide a "direct point of contact" for governors and mayors. Right now, the 22 agencies comprising the department have uneven regional presences.
Ridge also wants to fold the management of various state and local grants into one office. He dismissed concerns about problems that surfaced during a $16 million terrorist-response exercise conducted last week. He said that he was not aware of communications problems but that reports from localities are still being assessed.
Committee ranking Democrat Jim Turner of Texas and others complained about frustrated efforts to get information from Homeland Security. "If this committee is to assist you, we need to know the same information you know," Turner said, hinting that the poor flow of information could affect spending decisions.
Tuesday's hearing was aimed at assessing how safe the country is almost two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We admit that we've got a real challenge ahead of us, [but] I truly believe we are safer" than on Sept. 10, Ridge said.
It will take two hearings for Ridge to answer questions from every member of the House Homeland Security Committee. But after the first round of queries, Ridge's ears were ringing with all manner of concerns.
The issues raised most vigorously and often at the hearing involved the operation of the 20-day-old Terrorist Threat Integration Center housed at the CIA, federal security aid to states and localities, and the lack of screening for cargo carried beneath passenger airplanes.
Ridge also warned the committee that if the recent string of natural disasters continues, an emergency budget request to address the costs of recovery could be forthcoming.
Otherwise, Ridge said the fiscal 2004 White House budget request for Homeland Security would be adequate to accomplish the department's goals, such as funding the directorates on science and technology, and information analysis and infrastructure protection.
At $36.2 billion, the fiscal 2004 request for the department would be an 18.3 percent increase over the level enacted in fiscal 2003.
Ridge also said the department will not be able to meet the deadline for comprehensive assessments of vulnerabilities for terrorism within six months but will focus providing such assessments for the highest-priority targets near the biggest population centers.
Perhaps the most contentious exchange came when Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said that more than 20 percent of cargo shipped in the nation is carried unscreened beneath passenger airplanes at the same time that the department has announced plans to eliminate the jobs of some 3,000 screeners.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., questioned the government's "revolving door" on cybersecurity, and Texas Republican Lamar Smith echoed that criticism. Ridge said the issue will be handled under the department's future cyber center.