WASHINGTON - Members of Congress questioned yesterday whether a proposed Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department would be any better able to recognize warning signs of possible terrorist attacks than were the intelligence agencies that failed to anticipate the Sept. 11 strikes.
At House and Senate hearings featuring Tom Ridge, the White House director of homeland security, lawmakers raised concerns about plans for the department to serve as a clearinghouse for intelligence reports and to analyze the same information.
While expressing broad support for the creation of the department, senators and House members said they feared that it might receive either too much intelligence data or too little. Some also said they worried that the distrust among the intelligence agencies that has impeded information-sharing could worsen.
"I'm not convinced that competitive analysis serves our shared desire for protection of the homeland and may mean defeat of that goal," said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat.
But Ridge said it was crucial to have a single clearinghouse for information gathered by the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency and other agencies, so that all the material could be integrated and reviewed in one place for the first time.
"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," Ridge told the Senate Government Affairs Committee. "We know the threats are real, we know the need is urgent and we know we must succeed in this endeavor."
Lawmakers who represent large blocs of federal workers raised complaints about President Bush's plan to remove civil service protections - including the right to collective bargaining - for the 170,000 employees from more than 100 federal entities who would be moved into the department.
"Sweeping aside 25 years of civil service laws will not enhance the performance of the new agency," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican. Morella told Ridge that members of both parties have said "they do not feel radical changes to personnel rules are necessary. Why fight this fight?"
Ridge responded that the secretary of the new department would need broad flexibility to shift workers between agencies and offices "to be able to fill any short-term needs that exist."
Concerns about civil service protections, perhaps even more than about reorganizing intelligence analysis, threaten the timetable that Bush and congressional leaders have set for legislation to create the department. The White House has said it hopes the new department could begin operations by Jan. 1.
"I have great reservations about what I consider to be a rush to judgment on this issue," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat.
Hoyer took to the House floor this week to announce his determination to fight what he called an effort "to gut the rights of federal employees, using homeland security as a cover."
Yesterday, Ridge was making his first public appearance before Congress since his appointment in September as homeland security director.
For months, the administration steadfastly rejected Congress' requests that Ridge testify about his strategy for protecting the nation against terrorism and about Bush's spending requests for domestic security. The president had argued that Congress could not compel testimony from confidential White House advisers.
Momentum had been building in Congress to elevate Ridge's post to Cabinet level long before Bush proposed it. Lawmakers said they wanted to have one official - subject to Senate confirmation - who could be held accountable for homeland security functions.
"It's a pleasure to finally be able to talk to you in a public hearing," Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told Ridge at the start of his appearance before the House Committee on Government Reform.
Ridge, who privately briefed the full House and Senate on the proposed department last week, made clear yesterday that he was offering his public testimony at the direction of the president, rather than in response to committee requests.
There had been initial speculation that Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and a friend of the president's, would be named the secretary of the department once it is created.
But Ridge stressed yesterday that his post in the White House would continue as part of the new homeland security structure. And he suggested that Bush's need for a confidential White House adviser would be greater than ever - implying that Ridge might remain in his job.
To achieve its core goal of protecting the nation from terrorism, the new department would unify authority over at least parts of 22 agencies, including the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department, and the recently created Transportation Security Administration.
Ridge was pressed about why the president had excluded the intelligence agencies from the new department, which is supposed to serve primarily as an information clearinghouse.
He said Bush believes that the CIA, which deals primarily with foreign spy operations, should report directly to the president. And he said Bush thinks the FBI, as the nation's chief domestic law enforcement agency, needs to remain within the Justice Department.
Even so, Ridge said, the new department would provide a fresh interpretation of the intelligence reports that are produced by multiple sources, including the CIA and the FBI, as well as the NSA, the INS, Customs and others sources.
At the same time, Ridge said, the new department would evaluate the vulnerable points in America's infrastructure - roads, bridges, and water, power and fuel supplies, for example - to determine what protective steps should be taken.
Some lawmakers said they feared that the intelligence agencies would choose not to pass on information to the new department if they thought they might be second-guessed.
"Who will determine what information will be shared if agencies collect their own raw data?" asked Rep. William L. Clay, a Missouri Democrat. "Let's not simply create another bureaucratic quagmire. Let's make the Department of Homeland Security something the American people can proud of."
Several senators, especially George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, and Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat, raised concerns about how much money the department would cost at a time of rising budget deficits.
The administration has requested no new immediate funding. But some warned that the likely need for personnel and an upgrading of information systems meant that the costs would far exceed what the administration is acknowledging.
Carper reminded Ridge that when the Clinton administration sought to "reinvent government," the goal was to save money through greater efficiency. In this case, Carper asserted, "the temptation will be to spend more money."
But, he added, "I hope you will look for ways to save money as well."