WASHINGTON – Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle took another shot at the Bush administration Wednesday, this time raising questions about President Bush's Office of Homeland Security and its Director Tom Ridge.
"I don't think anybody can say with any real confidence how good a job he's doing, or the office is doing because we have such little information," Daschle said.
It's the latest jab at Ridge, who's been under increasing attack from Democrats frustrated by his refusal to formally testify before Congress on his role and efforts to prevent further terrorist attacks on the United States.
"I think his current position is untenable and inexcusable. He claims to be a simple advisor, yet he is administering the entire war on terror. The whole homeland security effort is under his command. It's more than just an advisory role to the president," he said.
But shortly after Sept. 11, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ridge was tapped by the president to head the newly created Office of Homeland Security without a budget or authority over federal agencies.
Ridge's priority has been to coordinate the law enforcement and security activities of more than 40 federal agencies, and to collaborate with state governments on preventing future attacks. However, no bureau or agency was put under his direct control.
Ridge has said that if Congress wants answers, they can be obtained any time a Cabinet secretary or agency head testifies, which lately has been every week as the executive branch justifies its annual budgets to congressional appropriations committees.
Nonetheless, Daschle said with the president requesting $37.7 billion for homeland security in the Department of Defense budget, Ridge better have some answers.
"We aren't comfortable coercing someone to speak, but when you have somebody this important and when you have the issue as critical as it is for all of this country at stake, there shouldn't be any question about his willingness to come before the committees," he said.
Daschle even tried to hold Ridge responsible for the latest controversy involving student visas for two of the 9/11 hijackers, including suspected ringleader Mohammad Atta, who attended Florida flight schools. The schools received notification six months after the attacks from the Immigration and Naturalization Service Tuesday that the hijackers' student visas had been approved.
"For the life of me, I can't understand how something like that can happen. It's a major embarrassment," Daschle said.
Daschle blames Ridge personally for opposing a Democratic proposal last year for a $25 million computer database specifically to monitor foreign student visas.
"We were told by Mr. Ridge directly that it just wasn't needed. Well, here we are, several months later with one of the most embarrassing revelations that I've seen since 9/11," Daschle said.
But Ridge does not oversee INS, a Cabinet-level agency under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. Bush said Wednesday that he is "plenty hot" about the incident and has talked with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has already asked the Justice Department's inspector general to look into the incident immediately to root out professional incompetence.