WASHINGTON – Lawmakers questioned the exclusion of the FBI and CIA from direct lines of authority under a new Homeland Security Department as the House opened hearings into President Bush's anti-terrorism reorganization plan.
At Tuesday's hearing and elsewhere on Capitol Hill, members of Congress grew more openly critical of the plan, which was announced last week, even as they generally agreed on a need for quick action.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said many lawmakers are concerned that the president's plan does not envision the "full participation" of the FBI and CIA, which have been the subjects of heavy criticism for their pre-Sept. 11 intelligence performance. Under Bush's plan, intelligence would be analyzed by the new department, which would have no authority over what the agencies produced.
"Many of us feel we can maybe, perhaps, more completely do that job than what was outlined" by the president, Armey said. "We may have to pull these agencies more fully into the structure than was recommended."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told the House Government Reform national security subcommittee that the FBI's domestic intelligence arm might work best as part of the new department — but he hastened to add that such a move should wait until after the new agency is created. Breaking apart the FBI would probably cause even greater turf wars than have already started.
"That's a big question, and one we're probably not likely to address in the short run," Lieberman said.
Also left out of the new department is the agency primarily responsible for tracking guns and bombs — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Even though ATF, a Treasury Department agency, has participated in several high-profile terrorist incidents, White House officials say its primary mission didn't fit the definition of homeland security.
On a related subject, a House panel delayed a vote that had been planned Tuesday on a bill to require people who want to buy explosives to obtain an ATF permit and undergo a background check.
Bush sought to reinforce support for the homeland security plan, meeting at the White House with a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders and endorsing the call by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., to pass the legislation by Sept. 11.
"What I've heard is there's a commitment to get this done in a way that takes any partisanship out of the issue, and at the same time strives for a date certain," said before leaving for an event in Missouri underscoring the need for improved drinking water security.
The White House also announced that Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, would brief House members Wednesday and senators Thursday on the plan. Appearing Tuesday on CNN, Ridge said he was confident lawmakers' concerns about the role of intelligence sharing with the new department could be worked out.
"We would see this new department as a customer of the CIA, a customer of the FBI," Ridge said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he hoped the Senate might be able to finish its version of the bill by August even though detailed legislative language isn't expected for two weeks.
At the House hearing, the enormity of the task awaiting Congress became more clear. Lawmakers raised questions about large-scale issues such as the potential costs of transferring 100 federal entities into a single department and smaller ones affecting their own districts.
In a sign of the parochial battles to come, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., took pains to both express support for Bush's initiative and to point out that her own homeland security bill would not transfer the entire Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, located in California, from the Energy Department to the new agency.
Tauscher said "only a small fraction of the work they do" at the nuclear lab is related to national security.
Seven Bush administration officials, including the Coast Guard commandant and officials from customs, emergency management, immigration and agriculture, all testified before the panel in favor of becoming part of the Homeland Security Department.
Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., suggested that a different story was being told in private by lobbyists and agency officials worried about losing turf and budget in the shake-up. He urged department chiefs to be candid as Congress moves forward on the plan.
"We can't afford to turn the federal government upside down through rose-colored, daisy-sniffing marches toward groupthink," Putnam said.
One official, Robert Acord of the Agriculture Department's plant and animal inspection service, said moving to the new department should not diminish any of the service's varied duties — which include such things as boll weevil eradication and tackling citrus canker disease.
Congress, especially the House, was also wrestling Tuesday with its own problems. Armey said the biggest obstacle to quick approval was "parochialism and jurisdictional issues among the committees."
In the Senate, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that Sept. 11 passage was "a worthy goal" but that completing the task properly was the paramount issue. He also acknowledged that there would be costs to the changeover; administration officials have been insisting it would be largely revenue neutral.
"I don't doubt we're going to have to spend more money on homeland security," Lott said. "I don't think we should use this as a piggybank."