Ridge defends Homeland Security budget request

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended the Bush administration’s budget request for state and local first responders Monday.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended the Bush administration's budget request for state and local first responders Monday, while acknowledging that an effort to merge several terrorism watch lists into a single database would not be finished until this summer.

Ridge, testifying before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said the budget proposal would double grants for first responders in urban areas that face greater risk of a terrorist attack. He added that up to $9 billion in grants awarded in previous years remains unspent, mainly because states have yet to distribute it to cities and counties. "We are going to try to break the logjam," he said.

Senate Governmental Affairs Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., both criticized the administration's proposed budget for first responders, which is $805 million less than the amount allotted in fiscal 2004.

Ridge also said that it would be several months before officials at the Terrorist Screening Center, which is managed by the FBI, consolidate several watch lists into a single master list. Because the lists are not integrated, screening remains a "labor-intensive" process, Ridge said. For example, when the nation was elevated to code orange on the five-color threat advisory system last December, officials had to check names on airline passenger manifests against several watch lists, according to Ridge.

"Right now it's still a very time-consuming and cumbersome process," Ridge said.

Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., both questioned how terrorism intelligence and analysis duties are divided between the FBI, CIA and Homeland Security Department. Durbin said Homeland Security appeared to have ceded key analysis duties to the FBI and CIA. "It looks to me like you're losing a turf battle within the administration," Durbin told Ridge.

In response, Ridge said that the department has access to all intelligence information through its Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection directorate. "We are partners with the Terrorist Screening Center," he said. "Our information analysis unit is designed to use information from all sources, and that's precisely what we're doing."

Ridge also said the department soon would answer an Oct. 30, 2003 letter from Collins and Levin seeking clarification of the roles played by the different agencies with a hand in terrorism intelligence.

Collins and Lieberman urged Ridge to increase funding for the Coast Guard, particularly for the Deepwater program, which is designed to modernize the service's offshore fleet. The Bush administration proposed $678 million for the Deepwater program in fiscal 2005, a $10 million increase from the fiscal 2004 level. At this rate, the program will take 22 years to complete, according to Collins and Lieberman.

"I hope we can put more money into this Deepwater program," Lieberman said. "It truly does pale in comparison to the billions of dollars we're putting into other programs through the Department of Defense."

Ridge defended the proposed budget for the Coast Guard. "We believe these dollars can get us through fiscal year 2005," he said.