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Two weeks ago, President George W. Bush proposed “the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s” and asked Congress to deliver it by January 2003. As Congress gears up to argue with itself and the administration over the plan, intense turf battles among the 88 different committees involved will fill the news this summer. But in the end, a new giant Department of Homeland Security will be formed with sweeping and, because of the number and type of agencies involved, likely ill-coordinated powers. And that’s where the rubber will hit the road. Whatever Congress and the White House work out — and don’t work out — will land in the lap of the new Cabinet secretary. Large-scale deadly domestic terrorism may be a new threat, but running a Cabinet agency is an old story — this one made alarmingly more complicated by the enormity of the mission. The secretary of homeland security will be managing one mammoth mechanism. How does she or he ensure that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight? THE JOB AHEAD According to Bush, his new department will have “four primary tasks”: (1) to control our borders and prevent terrorists and explosives from entering the country; (2) to work with state and local authorities on emergency preparedness and response; (3) to develop technologies that detect biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and find drugs and treatments to protect us; and (4) to review intelligence and law enforcement information from all relevant agencies to produce a single, reliable assessment of threat. To accomplish these goals, Bush proposes to pull together a number of large-scale operations, including the old, troubled Immigration and Naturalization Service, the new, troubled Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Protective Service, the Secret Service and a host of smaller or sub-agencies that most of us have never heard of (such as the Plum Island Animal Disease Center). Prior to legislative action, there is no meaningful way to determine which agencies and which tasks will end up in the new Department of Homeland Security. When the U.S. Department of Education was formed in the 1970s — a much smaller agency much less critically related to the nation’s infrastructure — major offices such as Head Start, Indian Education and the School Lunch Program remained in the departments of Health and Human Services, Interior and Agriculture, respectively, because interested congressional members and other constituents fought bitterly to preserve them. Under the best of circumstances, with the smallest number of employees, largest number of dollars, and highest amount of interoffice synergy, running a Cabinet-level agency is exceedingly complex. No matter how closely aligned an agency’s mission is to its operational functions, Cabinet heads juggle everything from policy development to personnel, to duplication of services, to political strategy, to crisis management, to communications, to technology. At a time when there is no time to waste, the Department of Homeland Security will face enormous organizational and operational challenges. But there may be ways to minimize, if not avoid, some of the inevitable startup missteps. First, the new department will need a strong leader whose abilities to direct bureaucracies and deliver results is widely, almost uniformly unquestioned. This is an operations job, not a policy position. We need someone who can make these variant trains run smoothly, stay on track, and make it in on time. If the new secretary does not start off with the respect needed to bring together two dozen strong-willed agency heads, we may just as well chalk this up to an interesting think-tank study on organizational failure. Many believe that Tom Ridge, the current director of homeland security, will be the new secretary, but there are lots of signals otherwise. The seeking-a-Cabinet-post game can be fierce even under normal circumstances. Won’t Tommy Thompson, another former governor who is now secretary of health and human services, want the job? Shouldn’t we consider former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani? It’s also critical, both to avoid the usual political rancor over Washington jobs and to enable an effective transition, that the White House and Congress come to whatever agreement they come to on who will head the department as soon as possible. It’s not likely that Congress will do this before serious discussions have begun on the actual legislation. But an early signal of strength and unity must be sent that this agency will not be a bureaucratic quagmire, with holes big enough to drive a truck bomb through. SYSTEMS THAT WORK Second, section chiefs within the new department must also be selected with speed and bipartisanship. A new hierarchy will be designed that promotes and demotes current officials. Will the director of the Secret Service, a nonpolitical appointment not subject to Senate confirmation, become a candidate for a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary-ship? Not likely, but if the Secret Service chief isn’t elevated while the FEMA director is, won’t that cause internal dissension and lack of coordination? (And speaking of FEMA, shouldn’t James Lee Witt, the former FEMA head who orchestrated one of the most successful reorganizations in history, be consulted?) Third, clear lines of authority will be key. Interoffice encroachment in Cabinet agencies is legendary. In the new department, jockeying for position will be intense, no matter what the enabling legislation says or intends. The secretary must establish from the beginning which offices and officials handle which tasks, and who reports to whom about what. Fourth, lines of communication internally and externally must be a primary focus of the new secretary. We have already seen the results of interagency communications failures, and we all know the frustration of even minor interoffice communications collapses. The new secretary must figure out how different offices are going to talk to each other, what systems will need to be upgraded and/or integrated, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and how to get it done quickly, effectively, and with minimal glitches. It should not be acceptable to the new secretary if the Transportation Security Administration’s computers can’t talk to the Coast Guard’s computers, and it should be almost punishable if the Transportation Security Administration can’t talk to the Federal Aviation Administration. ITS REASON FOR BEING Fifth, the new secretary must figure out how departmental success will be defined. Many other agencies will rightly claim credit for security victories. Those primarily responsible for federal law enforcement and intelligence gathering and analysis — the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency — will not even be part of the new department. How then does the new department identify success? The Secret Service is successful every time it arrests a potential assassin or moves the president of the United States without incident. The FBI wins when it catches a terrorist and averts an incident. The CIA and NSA guard their victories, but few doubt they have them. The new department will need to have them too, and they will need to be clear. Sixth, the new department will need an exit, or at least reorganization, strategy. What if, 10 years from now, terrorism seems at best a minor threat? Will we still need — or want — a Department of Homeland Security? What if, one year from now, somebody figures out that it was a mistake to leave out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — they investigate bombings — or to include FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program? In the past, some administrations have had “reorganization authority,” allowing them to move agencies and people around without legislative action. Shouldn’t Bush seek this type of authority on behalf of this new department? After months of stealthy analysis and deliberation over the viability of creating a new, massive homeland security agency, the White House must do more than leave it to Congress to legislate one. It must find a way to make one work. Leslie T. Thornton is a partner in D.C.’s Patton Boggs, practicing with the firm’s public policy and litigation groups. She previously served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley. The views expressed here are her own.

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