Bush administration weighs merging border security agencies

The White House Office of Homeland Security is looking at the pros and cons of creating an agency that would consolidate the border security efforts of various federal departments, according to a spokesman for the office. "Consolidating border agencies or functions is one option being studied to determine if that is the most efficient and effective way to improve border security," said Gordon Johndroe, of the Office of Homeland Security. Members of the Homeland Security Council, which includes representatives from the departments of Justice, Treasury, Transportation, Defense and other agencies, agreed that further study on the proposal is needed, Johndroe said. The New York Times reported Saturday that aides to Tom Ridge, director of the Homeland Security Office, outlined the proposal to consolidate border security functions last month in an internal document. According to the paper, the proposal has provoked intense debate and criticism within the Bush administration and among the agencies. The creation of a single border security agency is only one of the options being studied to improve overall homeland security, Johndroe said when asked about the reported controversy the proposal has generated within the administration. A border security agency would likely merge the activities of the Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, among other organizations. Currently, Customs is located in the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard is part of the Transportation Department and the Border Patrol is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is, in turn, part of the Justice Department. Several members of Congress have pushed the idea of putting the government's border security responsibilities under one roof. Last October, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a member of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, proposed the creation of a new border security agency responsible for all aspects of securing the border. Other members of Congress have suggested moving all homeland security responsibilities to one agency. Last March, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, introduced legislation (H.R. 1158) to unite under one department the border security, cyberterrorism prevention and emergency response activities currently performed by Customs, the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., introduced companion legislation in the Senate in October. "The Coast Guard, Customs Service, and Border Patrol are on the front lines of homeland security," Thornberry said during an October press conference on Capitol Hill. "Yet as it currently stands, these agencies have difficulty working together and often can't even communicate with each other." But the Coast Guard, an agency whose activities routinely cross the jurisdictions of several federal organizations, has given the idea of a single border security agency lukewarm reception. "At the moment, I think the upheaval would be very detrimental," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James M. Loy told Government Executive in an interview last fall, although he said he would be open to a reorganization in the future.
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