New House overseer takes cautious approach to Homeland Security

A Q&A with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican descended from Irish police officers, says he knows what it's like to live in a city under attack. More than 100 of King's friends and constituents perished at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and he has written a controversial novel, Vale of Tears, that imagines future acts of terrorism against New York City. King, however, was actually a dark horse to become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee after Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., left to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.

King was the fifth-most-senior member of the panel, and he faced off against such contenders as House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, for the post. Nevertheless, the leadership-controlled House Republican Steering Committee tapped King to be Homeland Security chairman on Sept. 14.

King, who is 61 and was first elected to the House in 1992, assumed the committee chairmanship just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast and raised concerns about the Homeland Security Department's ability to adequately respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. In a Sept. 27 interview with National Journal's Shane Harris and Richard E. Cohen, King said he is approaching his new role as overseer of the vast and troubled DHS cautiously. He also questioned local and state governments' readiness and said he is weighing a larger military role in responding to crises like Katrina. Edited excerpts from that interview follow.

NJ: Looking at some of the issues about which you've scheduled hearings -- immigration policy, infrastructure protection, even the effectiveness of bomb-sniffing dogs -- you've laid out a pretty broad field of oversight. What is your vision for the committee?

King: It's impossible to home in on any issue, because this is so far-reaching. The whole issue of homeland security is, to me, the defining issue of our time. No. 1 is to make the Department of Homeland Security work, be an effective force. But it is important that it not just be 22 agencies thrown together. We have to also consider, maybe start to reconsider, some basic premises.

It's been our premise that first responders [local police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel] would be first responders. What we saw in New Orleans was, without getting into whose fault it was, for whatever reason, the first responders didn't work. We have to get the timeline of what happened, but there seems to be anywhere from a 12-to-36-hour gap in there before the federal response was really coordinated.

We'll have to consider, I believe, using the military at an earlier stage. Whether that involves amending Posse Comitatus, whether that involves amending the Insurrection Act, I think it's important that we have a real legislative history on it, so if and when this president, or a future president, has to use it, there's not a question that he's overreaching on his powers.

In New York [after the 9/11 attacks], I think we got a bit spoiled, in that the police, fire, emergency-services employees did respond very quickly and effectively. So for the first 24 hours, the local first responders did their job. Also the mayor, the National Guard, the governor all worked together.

NJ: Is the difference in the responses attributable to the fact that New York had a large police force compared with New Orleans?

King: Yeah. In the future, and I've discussed this with [Homeland Security] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff, we need to see firsthand just how effective each municipality's response plans are, and not just on preparedness, but what kind of training their personnel have, how coordinated they are, how often they train... so we will know, certainly on a natural disaster, how much we have to pre-position the military, or how much we have to pre-position the federal response.

NJ: Is it the federal government's responsibility to measure state and local governments' preparedness, to make sure they're up to a standard?

King: Yeah. Let's assume that the New Orleans police and fire [departments] did everything they could have done. The fact is that, for whatever reason, nothing was done that was really effective. So it could have been that their plan just didn't work. What was their plan? How updated are their plans? There seems to be an assumption within the federal government that we would not be coming in for the first 24 to 48 hours -- and, obviously now, we see we should have.

NJ: Are you satisfied with the Homeland Security Department's ability to make those assessments?

King: I don't know. I've known Mike Chertoff for over 10 years. And I have faith that he will get the department up to standards. I've not been over there, I've only been in this job two weeks. I can't tell you exactly who's handling what, but I do have a lot of faith in Chertoff to make an organization work.

NJ: Do you plan to hold hearings on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina?

King: It will be up to the House select committee [on Katrina, led by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.] right now. But I intend to hold hearings up to the edge of Katrina, until those [select committee] hearings are completed. For instance, we're considering bringing governors from other states, asking what their plans are, how they would react to a situation similar to Katrina, and making contrasts between what their plans are and what happened with Katrina -- and also with Hurricane Rita, for that matter.

NJ: What do you mean when you say that you'll hold hearings "up to the edge of Katrina"?

King: We'll know it when we see it.

NJ: To the extent that you're going to be reviewing the preparedness of local law enforcement agencies and others, does it occur to you or others around the Capitol that these issues, these questions, should have been raised before Katrina hit New Orleans? Is there a failure here, or is this just a learning experience?

King: I think it's a little of both. If, for instance, Katrina had happened [before 9/11], I think the federal government would have even reacted differently on 9/11. There may have been more troops ready to come in. They might not have assumed that the cops and firefighters would handle it as well as they did. I think the presumption after Katrina is going to be that the federal government has to be ready.

Beyond that presumption, we should be really working with [first responders] to find out how real their plans are and how capable they are of being implemented. The response [to Katrina] was obviously inadequate. The response, I believe, was based upon premises that are no longer valid. We have to come up with a quantifiable standard as to how prepared these local governments are. And based on that, how prepared the federal government has to be -- primarily, the military -- to move in quickly.

NJ: Are you confident that the military would accept that kind of expanded domestic role?

King: I hear different things from different people. Probably, the military will not be enthused. And that's a good thing. If we had a military that did want to grab every local issue, then you're talking about a military that doesn't really know its place in a democratic society. In a way, we should be grateful that the military is reluctant to take on expanded domestic powers.

NJ: What do you see as your mandate, from the House Republican Conference and, moreover, from the GOP leaders, who had something to do with getting you elected as chairman?

King: One, they want someone who is totally committed to homeland security. Not to say the others weren't. [I'm] someone who, just by a quirk of history, has sort of an inside knowledge of what it's like to be in a city that's been attacked, and how it's come back. It gives me, unfortunately, a firsthand knowledge of what happens when a city is attacked. Two, put together an effective policy and be able to articulate that in the media. I believe that leadership today means not just having good ideas, but being able to articulate them, being able to get them out in the 24-hour news world we live in today.

NJ: Now that you're chairman, how do you envision your role as a public spokesman?

King: As a committee chairman, my job will be to articulate the Republican view on homeland security -- certainly, the House Republican view on it, and to the extent that that's consistent with the administration's. In most cases it will be [consistent], but I'm sure there will be differences along the way. It's imperative to get our message out there in the right way, and not to allow the media to frame it, [not] to be behind the curve the way the administration was on Katrina.

NJ: How do you see the Republicans' views on homeland security as being different from the Democrats'?

King: I don't look upon it as a partisan issue. I did say, when I was campaigning for the job, that just as the Republican Party became the party of national defense throughout the Cold War, that we should be the party of homeland security during the war against terrorism. I'm not saying the Democrats aren't doing it. I'm just saying we should. And let the people decide who is more of a homeland-security party.

NJ: What do you think about the proposals to restore the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Cabinet-level status, and to remove it from the Homeland Security Department bureaucracy?

King: Right now, I'm opposed to that. I think we have to be careful to be not always responding to the last tragedy or the last incident. If you go back to July [after the London subway bombings], you had politicians running to the microphone saying we had to put so much more money into subway security. Now no one's talking about subways. Now everything is about getting FEMA out of Homeland Security.

We may have to redefine what FEMA's role is. We should maybe change the chain of command. But I don't see how we can effectively have a Homeland Security Department and have this federal response agency separate from Homeland Security.