WASHINGTON – The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday approved historic legislation to establish a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security that would permanently re-orient government to meet terrorist threats against Americans at home.
The measure – approved on a bipartisan vote of 12-5 – includes a new intelligence division that would be the government’s locus for receiving, processing, and analyzing terrorist threats against the United States homeland. It also improves management of the federal workforce and clarifies confidentiality of sensitive information about critical infrastructure vulnerabilities.
Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the measure would, for the first time, provide the nation with focused leadership and a strategic vision for combating terrorism, while coordinating many disparate government agencies that play a role in protecting Americans at home.
“This legislation will improve the security of all Americans,” Lieberman said, “and is one of several important steps we need to take to prevent the disastrous pre-September 11th disconnects from ever happening again.”
The legislation, which was approved as a substitute to the National Homeland Security and Combating Terrorism Act of 2002 (S. 2452) reported out of Committee in May, creates six directorates: border and transportation protection, emergency preparedness and response, critical infrastructure protection, immigration affairs, intelligence, and science and technology.
A number of existing federal agencies and programs – including the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Transportation Security Administration – would be moved into the new department. This consolidation, Lieberman said, would improve coordination and information sharing among the agencies, and enable a more constructive relationship between federal, state and local officials.
The legislation also creates a White House Office of Combating Terrorism with a Senate-confirmed director to oversee a unified, government-wide, anti-terrorism policy, including coordinating the department’s efforts with diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies’ efforts.
“This bill gives the President 90 percent of what he has asked for in terms of the guts of this department,” Lieberman said.
On Wednesday, the Committee approved by voice vote a proposal by Senators George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Daniel Akaka, D-Hi., to strengthen the management of human resources government-wide. Among other things, the bill requires the appointment of Chief Human Capital Officers in government departments and agencies, streamlines the process for hiring new federal employees, and provides other tools for better management of the workforce.
“These reforms improve the conditions of federal employment and make public service more attractive government wide,” Lieberman said.
Also approved by voice vote was an amendment by Senators Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would clarify public access to sensitive information relating to critical infrastructure weaknesses that is voluntarily provided to the Department of Homeland Security.
This delicately-crafted compromise achieves the balance that is needed between the public’s right to know and protection of information that could compromise security. For the first time, one government agency would fuse all intelligence relevant to potential terrorist attacks at home from all available sources, including foreign intelligence collected by the Central Intelligence Agency. The new department will not just receive intelligence collected from other agencies; it will also collect a significant amount of information in-house – from Customs, INS, Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and other agencies that will be part of the new homeland security agency.
Lieberman held over a dozen hearings last fall on a range of homeland security issues and introduced legislation in October to create a new department. In May, the committee approved a revised version of Lieberman’s original bill.