Ridge Hints at More Authority for His Office

We know we've got some work to do.

That's the message from Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who said in his most candid remarks to date that the Bush administration thinks his office and authority must be revamped.

"Do we believe that the present structure is adequate for the future?" Ridge asked at a morning speech. "By and large my sense is that there is a general consensus that it is not."

Renewing his call for a government-wide overhaul of domestic defense efforts in a little-noticed talk on trade and border issues, Ridge indicated his own Office of Homeland Security would probably be included.

"We need to take a look at restructuring government, probably perhaps restructuring the office itself," Ridge said.

Ridge has until now publicly acknowledged little more than that the color-coded terror alert system he implemented needs to be "tweaked." Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the system as confusing and unworkable.

Ridge has privately suggested that, even though he attends Cabinet meetings, he faces resistance from various agencies because he is not an official Cabinet secretary overseeing a federal department. And on Capitol Hill, lawmakers say the problem is that while Ridge has expertise, he has no real authority.

"He understands the relationship between the federal government and the state and local governments," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., "which will be a key part of our homeland defense strategy, but he just does not have the tools to get the job done."

Graham and others support a bill to make homeland defense a full federal department, to be led by a Cabinet secretary. The White House began to signal its support for the idea several weeks ago.

The administration hopes to finalize a permanent plan for the Office of Homeland Security within the next month, then release its long-term national homeland defense strategy in July. Ridge and others concede that the report may stir some controversy, both within and outside the administration.

"It's not necessarily going to be a consensus document, I'm going to tell you that right now," Ridge said.

Ridge reportedly presented a plan in January to combine some federal agencies responsible for border security. But the plan was watered down, and was much smaller in scope than what Ridge wanted.

The homeland security director has also been criticized for not being more open with members of Congress. That issue came up again last week, when Ridge did not appear at an appropriations hearing. He appeared instead at a staged briefing for a few senators and a much larger contingent of reporters.