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Online Chat: Jim Wilkinson

President Bush, outlining the most ambitious reorganization of the government's national security structure in a half-century, urged Congress last night to create a Department of Homeland Security to coordinate intelligence about terrorism and tighten the nation's domestic defenses.

Jim Wilkinson, deputy director of communications at The White House, was online to take questions and comments on on President Bush's proposal to consolidate homeland defense under one cabinet level department.

Prior to joining the White House, Wilkinson was communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee and worked on Capitol Hill for House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Jim Wilkinson:  Hello everybody. Sorry I am late. Lets get going.

Annandale, Va.:  I'm afraid I'm a little slow, so please explain to me again how this is not going to cost the taxpayers anything? I note, among other things, that Governor Ridge's current position will continue to exist in the West Wing while a new Cabinet Secretary will also be paid to oversee the new department.

Jim Wilkinson:  From a budget standpoint the new Department would be funded within the funds requested by the President in the FY 2003 budget he submitted to Congress. There would be future savings achieved through the elimination of redundancies that are in the current structure. For example, if you consolidate eight separate organizations you don't need eight separate human resources departments. The new Department will be an agile organization that takes advantage of 21st century technology and management techniques to meet a 21st century threat. Redundant technology spending would be reduced. Critical research and development spending would be allocated more efficiently. The President, working with OMB Director Daniels has helped craft a management reform agenda that will make our total government more effective and responsive.

Colchester, Vt.:  One concern I have about the President's reorganization proposal is that it will become a major distraction for the agencies, as is usually the case in the corporate world during reorganizations. I fear that while the reorganization may be helpful in the long term, it almost certainly will make such agencies less able to focus on their jobs in the short and the medium term. How will this problem be avoided?

Jim Wilkinson:  The President is very proud of the way our intelligence, law enforcement, first responders and other key government employees have responded since September 11. Our borders are tighter, our planes and airports are safer, and we are more protected against chemical and biological threats. Organizations like FEMA have brought hope to countless Americans and their families in their darkest hours. In crafting his new proposal the President was careful to help ensure that the current components of our homeland security structure will continue to function as normal and there will be no gaps in protection as planning of the new Department moves forward. There would be a full transition process and our homeland security would only grow.

Washington, D.C.:  Will Tom Ridge head up the new agency?

Jim Wilkinson:  I don't know but I think the Governor would say that one job is enough right now. Governor Ridge is working full time to coordinate the protection of our homeland and he will continue to do so as the legislation moves through Congress.

Austin, Tex.:  Two questions:

  1. How will the National Security Agency fit into this new plan?

  2. What do you think are the biggest challenges to getting this plan implemented?
Jim Wilkinson:  NSA will play a critical role in making the new Department a success. For example, relevant NSA intelligence on the homeland would be analyzed by the new Department. But NSA is just one piece of a larger intelligence analysis puzzle. Right now our government gets intelligence from NSA, FBI, the CIA, INS, DEA, DOE, Customs, DOT and more organizations. But right now we don't have a central Department where all of this intelligence is analyzed in its entirety. The President's proposal would allow relevant intelligence to be analyzed to get the full picture. As for the challenges to getting the President's plan implemented, one big challenge will be Washington turf battles. However, the President thinks protecting our homeland should trump turf, and his primary concern is creating the best, most effective homeland security system possible.

Alexandria, Va.:  Thank you for coming online. Why was this proposal such a secret?

Jim Wilkinson:  The philosophy of this Administration is that the President makes the news and calls the plays and the rest of us run the plays he calls. The Cabinet was briefed in advance of the announcement as was the congressional leadership. Also, no one has consulted more with Congress and countless homeland security professionals than Governor Ridge.

Arlington, Va.:  What made the president change his mind when it came to this decision? Wasn't the administration against a new cabinet position just a few weeks ago? Thank you.

Jim Wilkinson:  I am glad you asked this question because there is a great deal of misinformation being reported today. Here are the facts.

The President's new proposal represents just the latest step in a long list of decisive actions he has taken to help protect our homeland.

Last year, on May 8th, the President directed the Vice President to oversee the development of a coordinated national effort to protect America from catastrophic harm from weapons of mass destruction. Flash forward to the events of September 11th, and in the aftermath of the attack on our country, the President moved immediately to help protect the country through the creation of the Office of Homeland Security.

On September 20th, the President appointed Governor Ridge as the Homeland Security Advisor and announced the creation of the office. Governor Ridge was sworn into this office on October 8, 2001 with a charge to help protect America now and study our entire government homeland security organization for possible improvements.

At the end of October, on October 24th and 25th, the President was in meetings with members of Congress where they were discussing the war on terrorism. And members of Congress discussed with the President some of the issues that they had viewed as important about the structure of the Office of Homeland Security. At those meetings, the President and Governor Ridge indicated that there was an immediate need that could not wait for legislation to get America protected through an immediate creation in the White House of Office of Homeland Security.

Members of Congress who had suggested legislation to make it a Cabinet-level post and a statutory post said at that time publicly that they would not proceed with their legislation, given the results of that meeting. At that meeting, Governor Ridge made clear -- and this is a quote -- that "he may recommend down the road a realignment." Members were assured that because of the immediate threat to the nation, what was most important was to focus on security through an immediate office that was empowered by the President to protect the country, and not to get into jurisdictional or legislative proposals that can take quite a bit of time to get enacted into law. Nevertheless, Congress understood then that this administration would take a look down the road.

From December through March of 2002 -- and to March of 2002, Governor Ridge and Homeland Security conducted a review of options for consolidating and reorganizing border agencies. Throughout the same time, at the President's direction, Governor Ridge and Nick Calio consulted with members of Congress to discuss ideas for border reorganization. As a result of the process and the experience that the border reorganization effort led to, the President, in discussing the structure of protecting the country, with Andy Card and with Governor Ridge, gave impetus to yesterday's announcement.

On April 11th, Director Mitch Daniels testified before Senator Lieberman's Government Affairs Committee and said, quote, "The President has said from the outset that the structure for organizing and overseeing homeland security may evolve over time as we learn more and as circumstances changed." He further noted that, "Should the review ultimately recommend to the President a different homeland security structure, there is a chance it may resemble Senator Lieberman's bill."

On April 23rd, Andy Card and Governor Ridge convened a small White House working group that put into motion today's announcement in specifics. This working group began meeting on a daily basis to put the details out that Throughout April and leading into early May, they refined the proposal that the President will make to the Congress tonight, worked on the specifics of it. And the President was briefed on it throughout this period by Andy Card and by Governor Ridge. This was something that was discussed at length, throughout that time and resulted in yesterday's announcement.

Washington, D.C.:  Under current law, the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Transportation during times of peace (I think that means until there is a war in the constitutional sense -- declared by Congress -- as opposed to the so-called "war on drugs," to take one example) and under the Department of Defense (as part of the Navy) in times of war. What will be the result under the new Department of Homeland Security?

Jim Wilkinson:  There would be no change in the Coast Guard's relationship with the Department of Defense. Current law allows the Coast Guard to be shifted to the Department of Defense in a time of war at the direction of the President. These legal provisions would remain.

The Coast Guard's fundamental roles - defense of territorial waters, border control, maritime law enforcement - align with the core mission of the new Department. For example, the Coast Guard is presently responsible for interdicting contraband at sea, securing our seaports, and preventing foreign threats from reaching our shores. As the sole maritime border control agency, it is also important to locate the Coast Guard in the same department with the agencies responsible for control of our air and land borders (Customs and INS/Border Patrol).

The Coast Guard's charter is to protect the vital interests of the United States. The Coast Guard's mission of protecting the personal safety and security of our population, our natural and economic resources, and the territorial integrity of our nation from both internal and external threats, natural and man-made, will be strengthened by a transfer to the new Department.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:  So where are you going to relocate all of these people to? An agency of this scope and importance is going to require a megabuilding to house them in. And since this is about homeland security -- not D.C. security -- perhaps you should build this new agency in the heartland not along/in/under the Beltway. Omaha, where SAC is located, comes to mind. Thanks much.

Jim Wilkinson:  No final decision has been made on location, but serious consideration is being given to moving at least some key elements of the organization outside of Washington to help ensure continuity in the event of a terrorist attack on the Nation's capital.

The President wants to consult closely with Congress on this issue.

Washington, D.C.:  How will creating a new cabinet position really help protect American's? Don't we really just need better communication between existing agencies?

Jim Wilkinson:  Good question. Simply moving boxes around on an organizational chart will be meaningless unless there are concrete improvements in the way we protect our homeland. The most important improvement with the new department is that for the first time our country will have one single department whose primary mission is to protect the American homeland. I would encourage you all to visit to learn more of the details. However, I want to point to one concrete example of how the new department would improve our security.

Currently, when a ship enters a U.S. port, Customs, INS, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others have overlapping jurisdictions over pieces of the arriving ship. Customs has jurisdiction over the goods aboard the ship. INS has jurisdiction over the people on the ship. The Coast Guard has jurisdiction over the ship while it is at sea. Even the Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over certain cargoes. Although the Coast Guard does have the authority to act as an agent for these other organizations and assert jurisdiction over the entire vessel, in practice the system has not worked as well as it could to prevent the illegal entry of potential terrorists and instruments of terror.

Consider this scenario: if the Coast Guard stops a ship at sea for inspection and finds there are illegal immigrants on the ship, the Coast Guard relies on the INS to enforce U.S. immigration law and prevent their entry. If the Coast Guard finds potentially dangerous cargo, it relies on Customs to seize the dangerous cargo. Unfortunately, these organizations may not always share information with each other as rapidly as necessary.

So, instead of arresting potential terrorists and seizing dangerous cargo at sea, our current structure can allow these terrorists to enter our ports and potentially sneak into our society. The system might also allow the dangerous cargo to actually enter our ports and threaten American lives.

Under the President's proposal, the ship, the potentially dangerous people, and the dangerous cargo would be seized at sea by one Department that has no question about either its mission or its authority to prevent them from reaching our shores.

Arlington, Va.:  How have agency heads reacted to the news?

Jim Wilkinson:  The Cabinet response has been enthusiastic. The President is proud of the teamwork that has been demonstrated in his Cabinet since the first days of his Administration.

Jim Wilkinson:  Sorry I have to run but I want to thank you all for the questions. The President's first job is to protect the American people. He wants to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to help ensure that we have the best possible homeland security system. Thank you all.

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