Tools for the Homeland Security Chief

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge has been on the job
as homeland security director a little less than a month and a
half now, and it is important to respect the president’s wish
that he be given time to settle in before Congress begins to
move legislation to strengthen the authority Bush assigned
him in his executive order.

But it is also important to lay down some criteria for evaluating
his new office in the weeks and months ahead. Americans need a yardstick
against which to measure this crucial job, while Congress can more responsibly
assess whether Ridge needs the additional powers that can be granted only
through permanent law.

These criteria range from the seemingly mundane to
the broadest of goals, but we’re convinced that all will
prove important as Ridge finds his way in political and
official Washington.

1. Ridge needs to be first in line for

It’s hard to tell just who gets information at what point on the homeland
security front. What we do know is that Ridge needs to get the first call
from the front lines, not the last. He also needs to have access to all
paper moving in and out of the Oval Office, including all briefing
documents from the National Security Council, if he is to have any
chance of influencing key decisions.

2. He needs access to the principals.

The Office of Homeland Security cannot succeed if Ridge can’t call
meetings with Cabinet members and the heads of the agencies he
coordinates. He should meet with his counterparts in the Cabinet, not
their deputies.

3. Ridge needs to be a gatekeeper in the budget and personnel process.

Two things matter in bureaucratic politics: money and people. If Ridge is
to have any hope of persuading agencies to work together, he must be
able to influence the budget process and the allocation of new
employees. Without access to these levers, his sole power rests on the
president’s willingness to intervene on his behalf, which in turn rests on
Ridge’s readiness to play this trump card.

Decisions are being made about the allocation of $20 billion in emergency
spending that Congress has approved for homeland security. And the
Office of Management and Budget is making the key marks on fiscal
2003 budgets, including dollars for new employees. If someone from the
Office of Homeland Security is not involved in those meetings, Ridge will
have lost a critical lever to force needed cooperation.

4. Ridge needs a permanent staff that owes its loyalty to him, and him alone.

Ridge has made some very good appointments to his team, several of
which were announced Tuesday. But many of the members of his staff
are still “detailees” from a variety of federal agencies, including some from
agencies he has been asked to oversee in his effort to build a strong
homeland defense. No matter where they come from, Ridge should ask
all those on his team, including temporary employees, to fill out the same
financial disclosure forms that other White House staff must complete.
That is part of ensuring the legitimacy of his effort.

5. He needs a staff within shouting distance.

Ridge has been given an office in the West Wing, close to the Oval Office
and his longtime friend the president. But most of his staff will be housed
miles from the White House or even the Old Executive Office Building,
which former vice president Walter Mondale once described as like being
in Baltimore. Ridge’s staff could end up being distant players, both
literally and figuratively.

6. Ridge needs a say in the selection of appointees at the agencies
he oversees.

As of this week there were still 35 vacancies among the 164
Senate-confirmed positions in agencies central to the war on terrorism
and homeland defense. Ridge should have a say in choosing the 14
appointees yet to be named, including the deputy director of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, the director of the National Institutes of
Health and the candidate for commissioner of the Food and Drug

7. Ridge needs to be involved in all management reviews of the
homeland defense establishment.

Under the Government Performance and Results Act, every federal
agency is required to submit an annual performance plan outlining its
agenda for action. Ridge should be asked to approve those plans, and
should be given access to all Office of Inspector General audits and
investigations in any of the agencies he coordinates. Ridge should be
given a role in helping rebuild the homeland security workforce and should
be consulted on all legislation regarding homeland security.

These criteria go to the essential questions of Tom Ridge’s ability to get what he
needs, and the government’s ability to give what he asks.

On Oct. 8, the day he was sworn in, Ridge noted that he and his office had been
given “an extraordinary mission,” then added: “But we will carry it out.”

We hope he is given the right tools to do so.

Bob Graham is a Democratic senator from Florida and chairman of the Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence. Paul C. Light is vice president and director of
Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution.