WASHINGTON – The best way to protect the homeland from foreign invaders is to turn the states' domestic security forces into a true "National Guard," a homeland defense task force recommended in a report Tuesday.
The 25-point report, assembled by three dozen policymakers and security specialists, including former Attorney General Edwin Meese and former Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism L. Paul Bremer, recommends that states use their National Guard troops for critical defense — like border patrols — even if that means bringing men and women home from overseas assignments.
"This is an important aspect, part of a new ground I think that we're looking at, but it's also indicative of the fact that the state and local agencies not only are the first responders, but are absolutely critical to any kind of homeland security," said Meese, who served under President Reagan.
The Heritage Foundation Security Task Force, which made the recommendations in response to suggestions already on the table, detailed several priorities the Bush administration will need to address for effective counter-terrorism, including protection of the nation's infrastructure, civil defense, law, intelligence, and military operations.
Among their recommendations are suggestions to improve border security, prevent identity theft, improve human intelligence-gathering methods, increase the inventory of bioterror vaccines, pass anti-money laundering laws, and crack down on visa violators.
"In the whole area of passport and visa control, this is another area in which having adequate sharing of intelligence is absolutely necessary," Meese said. "We have to review our procedures and review the aggressiveness with which our laws and regulations are enforced."
It would appear that message has already been received at the Justice Department — which is moving to fix the problem. A top priority has been placed on tracking down thousands of young men, primarily of Middle Eastern descent, who violated immigration laws and were scheduled for deportation but fled and remain at large in this country. Arab-American groups are not pleased with the new emphasis.
"I think it is racial profiling for two reasons. One is it's a sign of the frustration with the investigation that they haven't turned up more information in the U.S. Two, it's a political decision because it doesn't seem to have strong law enforcement principles involved," said Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab-American Institute.
A U.S. immigration official responded that the search is not about ethnicity, but about geography since all of the known hijackers come from the Middle East.
As to the other recommendations by the task force, many are already under evaluation by Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge.
Bush appointed Ridge as director of the cabinet-level post in October. Since then, few actions have come out of his office, though several recommendations are circulating. Ridge has also telegraphed several terror alerts and is in the process of coordinating the many agencies tasked with security throughout the federal government.
The task force participants said so far they are pleased with Ridge's performance, but want him to take it one step further with the re-purposing of the National Guard, a suggestion that the group admits is the most controversial of their recommendations.
"There are a number of people in the military services who would probably look askance at this because they are concerned that already the National Guard is overloaded," said Kim Holmes, Heritage analyst for foreign affairs and policy.
"We understand that, but at the same time the National Guard, it's their job to provide for the homeland defense and security," she said. "I think we can convince people that in fact we would not in any way hamper or hinder the conventional military operations overseas by doing this."
States across the country are already using National Guard troops to tackle the many homeland security efforts necessary in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In many cases, such servicemen and women — who are funded through the states — are conducting airport and infrastructure security. Units are also currently engaged overseas, like the Bosnian peacekeeping mission.
"We felt to do this properly, we would have to relieve some of the National Guard of some of its overseas duties and make up for what you lose there in providing more forces on the conventional side, " said Holmes. "I think we can bring people along."
Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.