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U.S.: Homeland Security Office Faces First Test

U.S. agencies appear to be struggling to cope with the anthrax attacks in the country. So many agencies are involved, including law-enforcement officers, military medical researchers, and civil entities charged with preventing or limiting the spread of disease. These and other federal departments have now been gathered under the new umbrella of the White House Office of Homeland Security and its director, Tom Ridge. As RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports, Ridge's job will not be an easy one.

Washington, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tom Ridge, the director of America's new Office of Homeland Security, faces a difficult task of coordinating the federal, state, and local response to attacks on the American people.

Ridge has been on the job for only two-and-a-half weeks, and already there are reports that a lack of cooperation led to the rapid spread of anthrax among Washington postal workers, killing two.

No one has accused Ridge of negligence. But there has been confusion about the nature of the anthrax that was contained in a letter received by the office of a leader of Congress.

At first, the bacteria were described as "virulent." Then government officials sought to downplay this description, characterizing the anthrax as being no more potent than other forms of the disease, merely ground into a finer powder. This meant the dust was easier to inhale, which could lead to the more serious form of anthrax than the form that is introduced through cuts in the skin.

But over the past 10 days, workers at the postal facility that handles mail destined for Congress began to show signs of anthrax exposure and even infection, and two have died. Yet none of the agencies investigating the mailing to Congress had thought to check the postal facility when the letter first surfaced.

And now, the anthrax-tainted mailing to Congress is being described as extremely dangerous because the infected powder had the ability to leak from even a sealed envelope and remain airborne long enough to infect the postal workers.

Some reports say the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, had the samples of the powder tested by a military medical-research center and did not share the results with the chief civilian agency responsible for protecting Americans from dangerous epidemics. The FBI insists that it shared all its information with all the relevant agencies.

Regardless of what may or may not have happened, the postal facility was not immediately tested, and a regimen of antibiotics for its employees did not begin until several days after they are believed to have been exposed to anthrax. This allowed the disease to develop in its victims without medication to control it.

It is just such coordination that is supposed to be the function of the White House Office of Homeland Defense, which U.S. President George W. Bush created as one of his responses to the 11 September terror attacks on New York and Washington that killed an estimated 5,000 people.

Nine days after the attacks, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, Bush announced that he was creating the office. He gave few details at that time, but in the five weeks since then, and the 18 days since Ridge was sworn in, it has become clear that Ridge's duties will probably be limited to coordinating about 40 federal agencies' responses to an attack.

Yesterday, in the midst of the anthrax scare, Ridge told a convention of the nation's mayors that they have as important a role to play as federal agents in responding to threats to the American people.

"It's pretty clear from my commission, my direction from the president, that he understands, and I think America understands, that the response is not just a federal response. National strategy means a federal response, a state response, a local response that has to be a seamless government response. And it can't just be the public sector, it has to be the private sector as well."

Ridge described his role as parallel to that of Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser. As director of the White House's National Security Council, her job is to coordinate the president's diplomatic and military policy.

"I think my office is really constructed along the lines of the National Security Council, where Dr. Rice -- it's not exactly the same -- where Dr. Rice from time to time deals with Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and General [Colin] Powell [the secretary of state] and other departments and agencies. She doesn't oversee them, she doesn't have budget authority, but she helps coordinate that work"

But thorough coordination to prevent an attack or to react to one that has taken place may not be possible. For example, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, is responsible for gathering intelligence outside the country. The FBI's duties include gathering intelligence domestically. Each agency is forbidden to encroach on the other's professional territory. But they are expected to share intelligence when appropriate.

And yet, there has been some concern that the CIA and the FBI have not been sharing enough intelligence. There is evidence that September's attacks were planned, at least in part, in Hamburg, Germany. Other evidence shows that the men who hijacked the airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been living for some time in the U.S. Many observers say conscientious coordination between the CIA and the FBI may very well have foiled the 11 September plot.

And now there are reports that the FBI may have withheld information from medical investigators that might have led to earlier scrutiny of postal workers and even prevented the deaths of two postal workers.

Publicly, Ridge says all relevant agencies are cooperating with one another. At a separate appearance yesterday during a White House press briefing, Ridge repeatedly grappled with questions about interdepartmental coordination. At one point, he said: "From Day One, there has been collaboration and coordination, and every day it continues to accelerate as the circumstances of the threat bring people and -- people closer together.... Everybody's intensely working on this issue. There has been extraordinary collaboration."

Observers say what ultimately limits Ridge's mission is that he has no budgetary authority over any of the agencies that he must coordinate. He cannot direct the actions of any of these departments because that would cost money. And without the power to provide the money, Ridge is left with only the power to ask.

But Ridge is also a close friend of Bush, and his office is near the president's. He told the nation's mayors yesterday that he consults with Bush daily. So if Ridge truly believes that an agency is not doing enough to prevent or to react to a threat against the nation, he could not ask for a better ally.