DHS Secretary Ridge marks agency's one-year anniversary.
Paul J. Richards  /  AFP/GETTY IMAGES
DHS Secretary Tom Ridge speaks Monday at George Washington University
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 2/23/2004 3:52:13 PM ET 2004-02-23T20:52:13

The Department of Homeland Security has made “measurable, visible progress” toward securing the United States, Secretary Tom Ridge said Monday, marking the agency's one-year anniversary. However, those gains are balanced with tough tasks ahead. “There’s much to be done,” Ridge said.

DHS officially began life, under congressional mandate, one year ago Monday but didn’t open its doors as a separate department until March 1.  And simply opening the doors was a tremendous achievement, Ridge said, noting that merging 22 separate agencies encompassing 180,000 people “amounted to a full-scale government divestiture, merger, acquisition and startup, all at once” in what was “undoubtedly the biggest change management challenge of all time.” Just making sure there was a stapler on each desk seemed overwhelming in the early days of the department, Ridge said.

Ridge took the opportunity Monday, speaking before the Homeland Security Institute on the campus of George Washington University, to highlight his agency’s rookie year achievements.   Those included:

  • A “one face at the border” program, which merged the duties and responsibilities of the former U.S. Customs Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol.
  • A roll out of the US-VISIT program that allows DHS to better track visitors to the United States by using biometric data and beefed-up computer databases.
  • A better system to track those allowed into the country on student visas. Ridge said some 200 people were turned away from entering the United States last year because although they had student visas, they weren’t actually enrolled in any school.
  • A more robust container security process. More than 6 billion seagoing cargo containers enter U.S. ports each year, the Coast Guard says. Of those, maybe 3 percent to 4 percent are actually inspected by U.S. security personnel.  DHS stepped up overseas efforts to help inspect incoming cargo containers, Ridge said, noting that U.S. inspectors are now located in major foreign ports helping to inspect cargo before it leaves for U.S. ports.
  • A little-known program called “Operation Predator” has put away more than 2,000 sex offenders in seven months of operation.
  • An allocation or grant of $8 billion to states and cities to help train the nation’s “first responders” in event of another terrorist attack.

Warning shot
But Ridge also put the states and cities on notice that they shouldn’t expect the federal government to carry the full weight of heightened vigilance.  Indeed, the governors and mayors have complained, bitterly at times, that Washington was imposing security requirements on them that amounted to unfunded mandates.  And with state and city budgets already running big deficits more is being demanded of Washington.

“Let me state clearly.  Homeland Security is a national strategy,” Ridge said.  We now live in an era when fighting terrorism requires “a philosophy of shared responsibility, shared leadership, shared accountability,” Ridge said, “and that engenders a shared imperative, in essence, a new commitment to federalism.”

Ridge said Washington will lead, “but we cannot, nor should not, micromanage the protection of a nation.” 

Ambitious agenda
Among the top items on Ridge’s agenda for DHS next year is increased communication among federal, state and local emergency personnel. The events of 9/11 showed that incompatible communications technology — firefighters couldn’t talk to the police who couldn’t talk to federal emergency management personnel — hampers rescue and disaster management efforts.

First responders and “their ability to communicate and work with each other in the event of a crisis is paramount, and their inability to do so is a longstanding, complex and critical issue facing this nation,” Ridge said. “We all must work together to give them the tools to do their jobs in a way that replaces outdated, outmoded relics with an interoperable, innovative and integrated system.”

To that end, the DHS is devising a single standard for communication gear and will tie the use of federal money to buying specific communications equipment that meet those new standards. 

By the middle of this year, DHS plans to install secure videoconferencing links in each  governor’s office, Ridge said. his will allow secure, direct, real-time information dissemination throughout the 50 state capitals in time of crisis, Ridge said.

And increased border and port security projects will be implemented, Ridge said, with an eye to speeding commerce while keeping security risks to a minimum. 

And scientists at DHS will be “buttoning up their lab coats a litter higher,” Ridge said, “developing new capabilities for detecting the presence of nuclear materials in shipping containers and vehicles” as well as “developing the next generation of biological and chemical detectors.”

Budget backdrop
Even as Ridge is highlighting achievements and setting new agendas, his department faces a tough battle on Capitol Hill.  The president’s fiscal year 2005 budget carries significant increases for homeland security. But the bottom-line increase is deceptive, say members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

Ridge has already testified before several congressional committees to defend the president’s proposed homeland security budget, and he’s scheduled to testify to more congressional panels this week.

Some of the harshest criticism comes from members of Congress concerned over cuts the president’s budget makes to first responders. 

A Congressional Research Service memo showed that $2.3 billion is being cut from first responders in the proposed budget.

“This administration has tried to distract us with happy talk of an increase in the homeland budget,” said Rep. Carol Maloney, D-N.Y.  “Now we know the truth.  That elephant-sized $2.3 billion hole is just too big to cover up.”

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