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U.S.: Bush Presses Hard For Homeland Security Department

When the United States goes to war, it sends its forces to foreign countries. But the new war on terror has brought the battle home. To protect American soil, President George W. Bush wants to establish a Department of Homeland Security. Bush is so intent on creating the new agency that he dispatched his highest-ranking cabinet officers to lobby for it before Congress.

Washington, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) - U.S. President George W. Bush sent his four most influential cabinet members to Congress to provide the greatest possible push for his call for a unified Department of Homeland Security.

Until today, defending America from terrorist attacks at home was relegated to several different agencies. Now, Bush wants to coordinate those functions under one department. It would combine all or parts of 22 existing federal agencies.

Bush is seeking congressional approval for the department that would have an initial annual budget of $38 billion and employ 170,000 people.

On 11 July, the newly established Select Committee on Homeland Security of the House of Representatives held its first hearing on the proposed legislation. The lead witnesses were Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, opened the hearing by saying, "It's not often that we see the four most senior cabinet officials brought together to form such a distinguished panel."

Rumsfeld attended the hearing despite thumb surgery this week, and O'Neill delayed his departure for a trip to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia to be present.

Each year, the United States has 35 million visitors, including hundreds of thousands from countries where Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network has considerable presence. The U.S. says Al-Qaeda is responsible for the 11 September attacks that killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the homeland legislation say it is difficult for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to keep track of visitors. They say the situation is further complicated by the fact that the visas to enter the U.S. are issued by a separate entity -- U.S. embassies or consulates abroad. These diplomatic outposts are run by the State Department. The work of the two agencies is not always properly coordinated.

One question Congress is likely to decide is whether to have the Department of Homeland Security both investigate visa applicants and monitor them after they enter the United States.

The issue has received renewed urgency following disclosures about a recent visa-fraud scheme involving the U.S. Embassy in the Gulf state of Qatar. The United States has detained 31 people -- 25 Jordanian nationals, five Pakistanis, and one Syrian -- on charges of illegally buying U.S. visas for as much as $13,000 each.

U.S. officials say that of those detained, three are suspected to have had ties to the men involved in the 11 September hijackings, though none is believed to have been plotting the attacks.

At the congressional hearing on 11 July, Powell acknowledged that a problem exists. "Some seek [U.S. entry] visas for criminal and other awful purposes including terrorist acts, so we have been working hard to make sure that only those who mean us no ill come to this country."

Amid growing criticism about lax standards for U.S. visas, Powell this week asked for the retirement of the department's top consular official, Assistant Secretary of State Mary Ryan. She is the longest-serving diplomat in the State Department and holds the rank of a career ambassador.

The controversy about visas is just part of the problem. Ashcroft, America's top law enforcement official, said regulations restricting activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) prior to 11 September made it more difficult to investigate terror suspects. "As terrorists have learned to adapt to the changing tactics of law enforcement, so too have we learned to adapt to the changing needs of America's domestic security. And among the chief lessons we have learned in the past 10 months is that our ability to protect the homeland today has been undermined by restrictions of the decades of the past."

Since the attacks, the FBI has obtained wider investigative powers, including the ability to more easily monitor the activities of terror suspects. Civil liberties advocates say these new powers eventually could erode Americans' freedoms.

Mindful of balancing the fight against terror and the preservation of liberties, Ashcroft said, "We must build a new culture of justice in which necessary information is readily available to law enforcement. We must foster a new ethic of cooperation and coordination in government. We must make our institutions accountable not just to their antiterrorism mission, but to the American people they serve. We must always do this respecting our constitution and the rights that America is uniquely aware of."

It is not clear how soon -- or even in what form -- Bush's Homeland Security proposals would be adopted. In related legislation, the House of Representatives already defied Bush's wishes by overwhelmingly passing a bill that would allow airline pilots to carry guns in their cockpits to prevent hijackings. A similar bill is under consideration in the Senate.

The bill was passed by the House on 10 July after months of lobbying by pilot unions. They say pilots should be able to carry guns because security at U.S. airports remains weak.