WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- The White House dispatched senior advisers to the talk show circuit Sunday to explain and defend President George. W. Bush's proposal to reorganize the nation's homeland security structure into a single Cabinet-level agency.
"The White House is where you coordinate the interactivity of the agencies. And homeland security needs a department, and the president proposed a department," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card on ABC's "This Week." "It's a bold move. It's the right thing for the country."
President Bush unveiled an ambitious proposal Thursday to create a 170,000-strong Department of Homeland Security. The new department would bring together elements of agencies as diverse as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard and the new Transportation Security Administration.
Card and White House homeland security adviser Tom Ridge were questioned closely about the timing of the announcement -- which critics have suggested may have been designed to eclipse congressional hearings and news stories about intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. They were also asked to explain the turn about by the administration, which for months poured cold water on the idea of a Cabinet-level agency.
The new agency would control America's borders along some 7,000 miles of land borders with Mexico and Canada. In controlling borders alone, Homeland Security would bring under its control the 22,000-strong U.S. Customs Service, 40,000 Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol employees, the 43,700-strong Coast Guard and a Transportation Security Agency now budgeted for 41,300 employees.
The plan has been under development since May 2001, and a final strategy for the proposed new department will reach the president's desk by July 1, Ridge said on CNN Sunday.
Ridge said law enforcement and state and local officials, as well as other officials and analysts were consulted as the blueprint for the agency was formed.
Asked whether the timing of the president's televised announcement Thursday was designed to distract attention from hearings on Capitol Hill Ridge replied, that it "absolutely, positively without hesitation," had not.
"This was the first available date," Ridge said. "Don't forget, the Congress was not in session the week before, and I think part of the week before, the president was in Europe. So this was the earliest possible day we could make the announcement."
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Ridge called the decision-making process "evolutionary" -- based on intelligence "learned every single day" and work done privately within the Office of Homeland Security.
Under the new structure, Ridge said his position as adviser would remain within the White House, a different job than the proposed new Cabinet secretary post. Ridge brushed off questions about whether he is being considered to head the new department.
Newsweek magazine reported Sunday that White House officials were playing down the possibility that Ridge might get the job, and cited two possible alternatives: FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Ridge and Card spent the morning attempting to dispel concern, much of which has come from Capitol Hill, on the scope of operational authority the new agency would have and the $38 billion price tag expected to be attached to consolidating eight agencies under one umbrella.
On the issue of cost, Card said funding already requested in the fiscal year 2003 budget would be sufficient to run the existing agencies, but would be applied towards a more efficient operation.
"We can find a lot more effective way to deliver those services of protecting the homeland by bringing them into this department and the effectiveness will allow us to have more people on the front line, fewer people in middle management or bureaucracies," Card said. He stressed that the aim of the president -- who campaigned on a platform of smaller government -- was not to increase the size of the federal bureaucracy, but rather to protect and secure America.
"If you have a priority that is protecting a bureaucracy or finding money, then you've got the wrong priority. The first priority is to protect and defend the homeland, and he will do that. He will also do it in the most effective way. This is not about building a bureaucracy. This is not about building bigger government. It's about finding a more effective way to secure our borders," Card said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaking on CNN, was uncertain whether the proposed agency was too big, saying that was the reason lawmakers want to convene hearings.
"Well, it seems like an awful lot of things thrown in there, and I just wonder how any one person could ever possibly keep in mind everything," he said.
The debate over what power the new department will likely wield has centered around its role in relation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. The two intelligence agencies drew fire from congressional lawmakers and others over whether they ignored or mishandled intelligence that might have enabled them to head off the Sept. 11 attacks.
The new department would be charged with reviewing and analyzing intelligence about terrorist threats, but would still rely on the nation's pre-existing intelligence infrastructure to collect it.
"In the statute that we will write to create this department, it will be clear that this department is a customer of the FBI and a customer of the CIA. Remember, the CIA reports directly to the president," Card said.