Regional homeland security offices will be small

A Homeland Security Department initiative to unify the field structure of its 22 agencies will not create large field bureaucracies, a top DHS official said Wednesday.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security's undersecretary for border and transportation security, outlined the department's ongoing effort to create regional offices around the country in testimony before a joint hearing of two House Government Reform subcommittees.

While the department plans to appoint regional directors to oversee homeland security efforts outside Washington, Hutchinson said it does not envision hiring hundreds of workers to staff the offices.

"In terms of the investment and the number of people, it's a little bit different from what some people view it to be," Hutchinson said after testifying. Some people "are envisioning something massive like [the Defense Department], and that's really not our vision of this."

Homeland Security's effort to craft a new field structure was first mentioned in the Bush administration's fiscal 2004 budget, and was reiterated in the 2005 budget released in February. Hutchinson said senior DHS officials, including Secretary Tom Ridge, have met frequently to discuss details of the structure, which is still being fine-tuned by department planners.

Homeland Security's field organization will influence how state and local governments interact with the department, as well as how agencies inside DHS work with one another. Homeland Security inherited agencies with vastly different ways of managing operations outside Washington. At the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Transportation Security Administration, field offices report directly to Washington headquarters offices. In the U.S. Coast Guard, by contrast, port captains answer to eight regional district leaders, who report to two area commands. Headquarters officials oversee the area commands.

Inside Homeland Security, some field managers worry that regional homeland security chiefs could impinge on their operational authority. For example, putting a regional director between Washington and the field could disrupt ICE investigations, some fear.

"Who is the [special agent in charge] going to answer to?" asked one ICE manager. "The [Immigration and Naturalization Service] had district directors between headquarters and the field, and they didn't understand law enforcement concerns."

But Robert Stephan, a special assistant to Ridge, said the regional directors will not direct day-to-day operations. "I think as we work through the development of this concept, there are lots of legal issues that complicate putting the day-to-day line authority under a regional official," he said in an interview with Government Executive last month. "With respect to giving that authority to an official on a temporary, contingent or crisis basis, however, most of those legal and political issues fade away."

Hutchinson seconded this view. "The day-to-day operational control would still be through the traditional agencies," he said Wednesday. He added that regional directors could run temporary operations. As an example, he pointed to a departmental task force set up to avert a mass migration of Haitian refugees earlier this month. Regional directors also could coordinate the department's response if a terrorist attack is carried out inside the United States.

During the hearing, Hutchinson said regional directors could help cross-train homeland security personnel and streamline procurement efforts. In response to questions from Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., he pledged to coordinate the placement of regional headquarters offices with the Defense Department, which plans to cut infrastructure through the base realignment and closure process, and to consult members of Congress as well. Hutchinson would not speculate on where any regional headquarters might be located.

Hutchinson emphasized that the regional concept was not motivated by a desire to close Homeland Security offices. "That's not the driving force," he said after his testimony.

Also testifying was James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who urged Congress to remove FEMA from Homeland Security and re-establish it as an independent agency.

"FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all-hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle," Witt said in prepared testimony.

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