Congress wants homeland security chief Tom Ridge to testify about the Bush administration's antiterrorism effort. The administration has refused, saying Congress is meddling with the separation of powers that puts White House staffers off-limits. The pseudo-constitutional debate would be silly if the subject weren't so serious. When it comes to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks, however, the country needs information and reassurance rather than political gamesmanship.
It shouldn't matter whether Congress can legally compel Ridge to testify, or that he is privately informing some members on his progress. Ridge should be eager to appear before Congress and the American public.
Domestic response to potential terrorist threats has been uneven in recent weeks. The worst gaffe came on March 11, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service formally notified hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi that their student visas for flight training were approved _ six months to the day after the men died carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. Whatever trust we had in the ability of the INS to keep terrorists out of the country was diminished. Americans also have been needlessly frightened by vague terrorism alerts, made no more coherent by Ridge's new color-coded warning system.
Meanwhile, the administration plans to spend $38-billion on domestic security next year. As we have learned time and again, government spending is likely to be more efficient under public scrutiny. Ridge set the budget priorities, so he should be willing to defend his decisions to Congress.
When President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security shortly after Sept. 11, it was the right decision. When he named Ridge to head the office, it seemed to be a good choice. Ridge has performed reasonably well in a difficult job, but the challenge will grow as he tries to coordinate security efforts now split among numerous agencies that jealously guard their turf.
All Americans, including Congress, want Ridge to succeed, and he has broad public support. But Americans will lose confidence in the effort if they are not kept informed. That is reason enough for Ridge to appear before Congress.