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Homeland nominee praised at confirmation hearing

Gordon England, nominated to be deputy secretary of the new Homeland Security Department, got strong reviews during a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Friday with all lawmakers in attendance expressing confidence in his selection.

Senators were equally enthusiastic in urging England to ensure a balance between civil rights and privacy concerns and national security efforts. "I believe that you and Secretary Ridge have the experience and background, the conviction and character, to steer this new department on a successful course," Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, told England. Collins predicted committee consideration next week of England's nomination and quick Senate approval.

Meanwhile, at a White House ceremony Friday afternoon, Tom Ridge was sworn in as the first Homeland Security sectretary.

On Capitol Hill, England told the committee that the nation is safer than it was prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and "it will be better as we develop new policies" to assess vulnerabilities and threats and to develop a response plan.

Collins and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., raised concerns about invasions of privacy as the government builds databases to track information in an effort to prevent an attack. Levin hailed the passage Thursday of an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to limit spending on the Defense Department's proposed Total Information Awareness program until Congress can review privacy and civil liberties issues related to the plan.

"The ability to violate privacy is huge," Levin said, noting that he wants law enforcement "to go after terrorists in a way that does not undermine the rights of citizens." England told the committee that he shared their concerns and recommended that a privacy officer be involved at the beginning of any project to consider any privacy considerations. Congress and the American people should be informed of those policy choices and given an opportunity to review them, England said.

Collins, noting that federal agencies do not share information with state and local law enforcement officials who will do much of the work, asked England how he planned to fix that problem. England said he would create a "collaborative environment" and put processes in place that ensure federal officials share necessary information with state and local officials. Levin also urged England to ensure that GAO has access to records and information at the new agency. "They are a watchdog and you folks are going to need a watchdog," he said.