WASHINGTON – In one of his first battles at the helm of the new Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Tom Ridge will face off with an old ally: Sen. Arlen Specter, a fellow Pennsylvania Republican.
But as Specter sees it, the power battle is necessary to help Ridge win a possible Washington turf war.
Even before Ridge was sworn into office Friday, Specter was planning to lob a fresh attack on the 170,000-person department that he believes will be rendered ineffective if it cannot extract intelligence from agencies like the FBI and the CIA.
Ridge has said the new department has all the authority it needs.
"This is an area that's going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight among all the turf guys in Washington," Specter said in an interview.
The department, which went into official operation Friday, lacks the power to demand data from intelligence agencies, although they currently brief Ridge at least twice a day. If he requests specific information and is refused, Ridge must appeal to the White House to get it.
The setup could create a time gap in identifying terrorists, as well as a turf war within the executive branch as agencies stake claims to sensitive information, Specter aides said.
Both moderates, Specter and Ridge are personally friendly and politically allied on many issues. But the four-term senator and the former Pennsylvania governor have locked horns repeatedly on the best way to build the Homeland Security Department.
Even as Ridge lobbied Congress last fall for support for the White House blueprint, Specter signed on to a Democratic bill that would have given the department far less power over employee unions' bargaining rights but far more say in what intelligence data it could get from other agencies.
As early as next week, Specter will introduce a bill to give Homeland Security the authority to receive information instead of waiting for intelligence agencies to hand it over.
The power struggle over security turf was the subject last week of an intense exchange between the two Pennsylvanians during Ridge's confirmation hearing before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
"When push comes to shove, if you need it, why, institutionally, shouldn't the secretary have it?" Specter asked Ridge at the Senate hearing.
Ridge responded: "I feel that the language in the statute ... is so strong, and creates such an affirmative obligation on the part of the intelligence community, that we'll get all we need."
Without that power the new department risks letting terrorists slip through the cracks, said Stephen Push, head of the Homeland Security Alliance, an organization of families who lost relatives in the Sept. 11 attacks.
For example, he said, the day before the attacks, the CIA had the names of two of the terrorists who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
"If the information doesn't get to end-users in time to be useful, what's the point of having intelligence in the first place?" said Push, whose wife, Lisa Raines, was aboard Flight 77.
But Mark Holman, Ridge's former chief of staff who left the White House last month to return to private law practice, said the Bush administration is convinced the department will get all the intelligence data it needs.
Ridge's "access to both CIA and FBI information has been constant, and in real time," Holman said.
The bill that created the department gives its secretary the authority to "receive all of information that would be needed to match vulnerabilities against threat," he said. "The administration really believes that information that is needed will be provided."