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Security, with a catch

The sweeping homeland security legislation approved by Congress may eventually make Americans safer, and it can't do much harm _ aside from the handful of special-interest provisions attached to it in secret by those cynical enough to use national security as cover for their own greed. However, the potential benefits of this massive bureaucratic reorganization are distant. In the meantime, Americans must continue to seek more direct ways to reduce the vulnerabilities exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.

In many respects, the establishment of a new, Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security is a hopelessly cumbersome response to the threat posed by terrorists who have proved their ability to act with light footsteps. At best, merging 22 agencies with 170,000 employees into a cohesive organization will take many years and untold billions of dollars. The task already has been set back by continuing Washington wrangling that has blocked the appropriation of new funds that all sides acknowledge will be required to enhance domestic security. Meanwhile, our enemies have shown how much damage they can inflict with little more than plane tickets and box cutters.

In the long run, the effectiveness of the Homeland Security Department will depend less on its organizational chart than on the authority its leadership receives from the president. While a grab bag of agencies, from the Coast Guard to FEMA, will now be subsumed within Homeland Security, our major intelligence-gathering organizations remain outside. The new department is supposed to become a clearinghouse for assessing intelligence developed by the FBI, CIA, NSA and other agencies, but those agencies have never been eager to share information among themselves, much less with outsiders.

Tom Ridge, who has been serving as the president's homeland security adviser, is expected to be nominated to lead the new agency. If so, the president and leaders of Congress need to see to it that his authority is bolstered in the process. Ridge hasn't yet shown that he's up to the job, but he hasn't really had a chance. In recent months, Attorney General John Ashcroft and leaders of the intelligence-gathering agencies have established a habit of circumventing Ridge. The massive undertaking of building a new homeland security infrastructure will be meaningless if the department's leader is undercut by the established intelligence-gathering bureaucracy.

In the maneuvering leading up to Tuesday night's Senate vote, the merits of the homeland security reorganization were obscured by the controversy over special-interest provisions sneaked into the legislation. Three crucial Republican senators agreed to support the bill only after Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert promised to reconsider three especially offensive provisions early next year. One provision shields drug companies that have been sued over vaccine ingredients, including mercury-based preservatives that some suspect of causing autism in children. Another provision, shepherded by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, routes homeland security research funds to Texas A&M University. The most offensive provision of all allows homeland security contracts to go to U.S. companies that establish headquarters abroad to avoid taxes.

President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress have an obligation to follow through on the promise to eliminate those offensive provisions as soon as the next Congress convenes. They should be ashamed of allowing such venal business into the homeland security legislation in the first place.

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