updated 7/13/2005 9:30:10 PM ET 2005-07-14T01:30:10

Proclaiming the Homeland Security Department “open to change,” Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday announced plans to centralize his agency’s terror analysis, put a higher priority on bioterrorism and step up detection systems in mass transit.

In welcome news to Washington-area commuters, the department also will lift a rule that forbade passengers from leaving their seats for 30 minutes before flying into or out of Reagan National Airport, Chertoff said in revealing the details of a sweeping overhaul of the 2-year-old agency founded in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Chertoff ordered the review in March shortly after he took office. The overhaul aims to spur the sluggish bureaucracy beset by turf wars and growing pains, and to ensure department resources are put into the nation’s most vulnerable areas.

“Over time, as intelligence warrants and progress allows, DHS will be open to change. We will be straight forward. If something goes wrong, we will not only acknowledge it, we will be the first to fix the error,” Chertoff told a packed ballroom of lawmakers, department employees and other officials.

Chertoff, who opened his speech offering condolences to the British people after the London bombings. He did not give any specifics about his plan to put explosives, bioterror, chemical or radioactive material detection systems in the nation’s rail, subway and bus systems.

He also renewed his pitch to retool terror-watch lists used to screen passengers on airline flights to eliminate what he called “an unacceptably high number of false positives.”

Chertoff said the United States needs to improve its immigration system as part of bolstering border security. Though the department will deploy more personnel and technology at borders to deter illegal immigrants from entering the country, Chertoff said a newly approved temporary worker program should help migrants seeking jobs in the United States “into regulated legal channels.”

A plan to ease visa hassles
He said he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will soon announce plans to ease visa hassles for foreigners entering the country to visit, work and study.

Chertoff also pledged better oversight of private contracting practices in the department. But most of his recommendations Wednesday focused on a shaking up of Homeland Security’s chain of command.

Chief among them was creation of an intelligence director to centralize the analysis of information gathered by 11 Homeland Security bureaus. The director, who has not yet been appointed, will be asked to improve Homeland Security’s standing within the intelligence community, where it is perceived as a junior partner and often left out of the loop.

Homeland Security was initially designed to be the government’s chief center for analyzing terrorist threats, but an interagency office led by a CIA officer has assumed that role. Homeland Security merged 22 agencies when it opened its doors in March 2003 — the largest U.S. government reorganization in 50 years.

A chief medical officer also will be named to oversee bioterror policy and coordinate responses to biological attacks by the Centers for Disease Control, which stockpiles vaccines and antidotes, and state and local officials. Poor information flow between federal agencies during the Washington-area’s false anthrax scare this year contributed to the decision to create this post, officials said.

A new policy undersecretary will oversee international affairs, strategic plans and work with the private sector. And Chertoff will elevate cybersecurity by assigning it to an assistant secretary, who also focuses on telecommunications.

80 percent under Chertoff's control
Eighty percent of the changes can be accomplished under Chertoff’s existing authority; the remainder require congressional approval.

Some lawmakers Chertoff briefed Tuesday said the overhaul was headed in the right direction but remained skeptical that bureaucratic reorganization would make the country safer.

“We appreciated him coming and talking to us, but ... at the end of the day you have to show Congress and the public what you have done will in fact make us safer” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson said Chertoff highlighted immigration and vulnerabilities at chemical and nuclear plants as top priorities.

Many of Chertoff’s changes were recommended last year by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation, two Washington think tanks.

“The current organization is weighted with bureaucratic layers — there are still turf wars and there is no place for strategic thinking and policy making,” said CSIS Homeland Security director David Heyman, who helped craft the recommendations.

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