Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Breaking barriers of bureaucracy

The consoles in the horseshoe-shaped operations center of the Department of Homeland Security are marked with the names of the agencies that man the computers and pool the information they have gathered about threats to the nation.

The FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, and 33 other federal agencies each has its own workstation. And so do the police departments of New York, Los Angeles, Washington and six other major cities.

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Pete Barrera told me that he had been on duty on New Year's Day, monitoring the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena from cameras along its route, on a screen in Washington, ready to sound the alarm if there were an incident of any kind.

The unusual arrangement _ with local law enforcement working side-by-side with federal officials _ symbolizes what retiring Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge calls "the new model of federalism" his agency is attempting to build.

"For us to do our best to prevent or respond to attacks depends on the integration of the capacities of states and local governments and even private citizens," Ridge told me. "That is as much of a challenge as integrating all the separate agencies that have become part of this department."

No one, least of all Ridge, would claim that the process is complete. But mayors and state officials give the former Pennsylvania governor high marks for his efforts to overcome the barriers in the way of communication and cooperation.

Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said, "I'm not of the same party, but given all the circumstances, I think Gov. Ridge has done a phenomenal job. There's still more to do, but it's an enormous task and he has made a good start."

Ridge enjoyed the advantage of having, as one of the components of his new department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose operations in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters are regarded as models of efficiency. Plusquellic said one of the things FEMA has done well is to standardize training routines for emergency workers so they can aid each other in a time of need.

That is one of the goals of the National Response Plan, a thick book of operational plans that Ridge introduced at the National Governors Association headquarters in Washington last week. NGA executive director Ray Scheppach said that governors and mayors and their staffs were made full partners in developing the blue book of emergency plans.

From the start of the department's existence, complaints were frequent about the slow movement of money from Washington to local police, firefighters and emergency medical units. Those complaints are still heard, but Plusquellic said that things have improved since arrangements were made for the 50 largest cities to get money directly, rather than through the governors' offices.

A bigger problem is the tendency of old-line federal security agencies to hoard information _ a Washington behavior pattern which Ridge has attempted to tackle head-on. Large signs on the walls and doors of the operations center read: "Our Mission: To Share Information." In the new department, Ridge said, "We don't have a culture that says, "Hold the cards close.' Our culture says, "Look, if you want to take advantage of the 700,000 men and women on the streets, the first responders, you've got to share more information, not less.' "

Making space for the local police officers in the operations center is the culminating step in that information-sharing effort. By placing them literally a step away from the CIA and FBI operatives who are downloading the latest intelligence, Ridge has tried to erase some of the bureaucratic barriers so frustrating to local law enforcement.

"You can't secure a country from inside the (Washington) Beltway," Ridge says.

As Ridge prepares to leave, part of his legacy will be a design for regional centers, aimed at moving the coordination closer to the local level _ something his successor, federal Judge Michael Chertoff, will have to fight for on Capitol Hill.

But a start has been made in responding to a challenge the Founders could not have imagined when they created the multitiered wonder known as the federal system.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

Washington Post Writers Group