Recognizing that another terrorist attack would rock not only the nation but also his presidency, President Bush said Tuesday that he wanted to establish a Cabinet-level office of homeland security to raise the accountability of government.
"I'm a person that believes in accountability," Bush told an audience at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo. "One reason I believe in accountability is because I understand who the American people are going to hold accountable if something happens: me."
"I don't like the idea of calling 100 different agencies. I like to call one and say, 'Here is the strategy, and what are you doing about it?' And if you're not doing something about it, I expect you to. And if you don't, I'm going to find somebody else that will do something about it," he added.
Bush is traveling around the country in the coming weeks to promote the idea of a Homeland Security Department, for which he received overwhelming support during a morning meeting with congressional leaders.
Leaders agreed Tuesday that a reorganization should not be conducted in a partisan way, though even lawmakers who support the idea for a new department said Bush's timetable to have legislation passed by Sept. 11, the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, may be too optimistic.
"This is a very large reorganization bringing in a lot of important but divergent agencies and programs, and I think Congress needs to make sure we do it in the right way," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Trying to justify the move to create a new bureaucracy, perceived by many as an expansion of government against which Bush campaigned in 2000, the president said that adding an agency to command more than 100 different agencies and 170,000 people isn't an expansion of federal government but is a move to make the federal government more efficient.
For instance, he said, too many security units fall into agencies that they are not particularly aligned with in other cases.
"The Customs Department — their job is to collect tariffs and to worry about people bringing things into our country, and yet they work for the Treasury Department. Well, the Treasury Department's job is to worry about fiscal matters, not the security of the homeland. Or how about the Coast Guard? The Coast Guard can do a good job of patrolling our borders, and they do. The Coast Guard's a fine outfit. But guess who they report to? The Transportation Department," he said.
Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill spent much of the day Tuesday reviewing the elements of a Homeland Security Department, which they took credit for considering over the past several years though without completing any measures to institute a new agency.
They also heard from representatives of agencies that will be affected by the move to a new department. Several threw their support behind the president's plan.
"The president's proposal will bolster our coordination, planning, response and management capabilities. The Coast Guard and all federal agencies with homeland security responsibilities must act with unity of effort," said Adm. Thomas Collins, Coast Guard commandant.
But others say that they will not be able to work effectively in an agency that is divorced from their primary mission.
"I don't believe we're going to be in the position of transferring part of the mission and letting the other part go," said Robert Acord, administrator of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, also under consideration for a move.
Lawmakers also raised as many questions as they answered when they discussed how to develop a new department, the first new Cabinet position since the Department of Energy was established in the 1970s.
"We can't afford to turn the federal government upside down through rose-colored, daisy-sniffing marches toward groupthink," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who warned against agencies acting supportive of a move publicly but privately battling over turf.
Bush said that Americans should tell their congressman not to put up barriers for fear of losing jurisdiction over agencies that will now move to another committee's purview.
"I need the help of the American people to remind the turf fighters not to be nervous, because we're talking about doing what's right for America," he said.
But as Bush travels around the country, he admittedly is seeking support from Americans who may not feel a terrorist threat as vividly as East Coasters. Bush tried to bring home the threat to Kansas City's 800,000 residents, whose water treatment plant the president toured Tuesday afternoon.
The water treatment plant is just one that has had its security beefed up to 24 hours a day since Sept. 11. The water is now tested several times daily. Bush said that the Environmental Protection Agency will eventually grant money to water treatment plants around the country to encourage a full assessment of any vulnerabilities.
"We just came from one of the water treatment plants here in the area, and we're pleased to see how secure the plant is. This one didn't appear very vulnerable, I want you to know. I was pleased to take a big gulp of water when I arrived here," he said.
Bush is scheduled to meet with his homeland security advisory panel on Wednesday. Members of the panel include James Schlesinger, former defense and energy secretary and director of Central Intelligence; William Webster, a former CIA and FBI director; and Paul Bremer, a former ambassador under President Reagan who was appointed in 1999 by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to chair the National Commission on Terrorism.