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 » Special Report  | Timeline  |  Faces of September 11  |  Fighting Terror

Attacks alter government's mission, makeup

Homeland security tops agenda; civil liberties a concern

White House
Security around the White House and other government buildings in Washington, D.C., has been expanded considerably since the September 11 attacks.  


By Sean Loughlin
CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Take a walk around the nation's capital, and you will see one way government has changed since September 11: concrete barriers.

Hefty slabs of concrete cordon off streets that one year ago had been accessible to cars and trucks. Several blocks around the Capitol and its office buildings are now closed to vehicular traffic, tours of government sites have been severely restricted, and more security guards are visible throughout the city, including the White House.

Washington, a city that once prided itself for allowing U.S. citizens and visitors to see government up close, has battened down the hatches since September 11. While perhaps the most visible change in government since the terrorist attacks, increased security is by no means the only change, nor perhaps the most significant.

The 19 hijackers who last year seized four commercial U.S. jets and crashed them into American symbols of military might and capitalism shook the federal government to its core, prompting wholesale changes in how this country protects itself, altering the legislative agenda for years to come and challenging long-standing notions of civil liberties.

Biggest reorganization since 1947

Tom Ridge
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was named director of homeland security in the aftermath of the attacks. President Bush is now proposing the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.  

Perhaps the most profound change is in the mission of government itself.

"The single biggest change at all levels is how decision makers prioritize their resources and their policies," said Michael Scardaville, policy analyst for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Homeland security and the fight against terrorism are now the concern of virtually every government agency.

Consider just a few: The Securities and Exchange Commission tracks down terrorist funds; the Federal Aviation Administration labors over how to make flying safer and less vulnerable to attack; the Federal Emergency Management Agency, once concerned primarily with helping residents recover from such natural disasters as hurricanes and floods, had to draft plans in the event of another terrorist attack.

EXTRA INFORMATION
Fact Sheet: Homeland Security 
Homeland Security: Proposed organization 
Homeland Security: Threat advisory system 
 

"Most agencies never viewed their job as homeland security," Scardaville said. "Now we're trying to turn agencies and entities with a service orientation into security agencies."

The FBI has increased its focus to the prevention of terrorism, shifting resources away from more traditional crime-fighting endeavors.

Then, of course, there is the proposed Department of Homeland Security. If approved, it will amount to the most significant reorganization of the government since the Department of Defense was created and put under the control of a single secretary of defense in 1949 during the Truman administration.

The proposal calls for all or parts of 22 government agencies to be pulled together under a single department committed to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. As outlined by President Bush, the department would have 170,000 employees and a budget of $37.4 billion.

There is some debate over how the new department is to be organized, with disagreement over how much latitude the president ought to have in hiring, firing and transferring employees. Bush wants broad discretion in how to run the department..

"I need the flexibility to put the right people at the right place at the right time to protect the American people -- and the Senate better get it right," Bush told union workers on Labor Day in Pennsylvania.

But critics like Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, say the White House's proposal would undercut protections for federal employees and weaken the civil service system.

"President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security is an enormous grant of power to the executive branch," Byrd said as the Senate began debate over the legislation, adding: "We must not cede this power -- power the administration wants but not necessarily needs."

Alarm over secrecy cited

But that debate pales in comparison to the criticism from some lawmakers and libertarians who say the federal government is trampling on individual rights in the name of anti-terrorism.

They point to the wide-scale detainment of hundreds of foreign nationals after September 11, many of whom have never been criminally charged, and they're following the cases of so-called "enemy combatants" -- which includes two Americans. That designation restricts detainees' access to open courts and attorneys for such individuals.

"Since September 11, we've been in this struggle over the Constitution at several levels," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The Michigan lawmaker has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration for what he calls its tendency to "run roughshod over fairness and constitutional protections."

Conyers predicts that many of the Justice Department practices put into place after September 11 will be challenged in court.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the government has to take a much more aggressive posture in its anti-terrorism efforts, but he has maintained that civil rights are being protected and that all of the department's practices will stand up in court.

For some observers, little has changed about the government since September 11.

Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a liberal-oriented public policy think tank, said there has been a quick "return to normalcy" since last year's attacks, and he faulted lawmakers and the administration for a "lost opportunity."

Mann said neither political party has made a serious effort to craft a new majority in the wake of the attacks nor alter how Americans relate to their government. "We're back to fighting old battles," he said.

But others said they see fundamental changes, and some said they don't like what they see. Conyers, for example, said much of the secrecy that surrounds the war on terrorism alarms him.

"The whole idea of a secret democracy is a contradiction in terms," he said.

That debate -- secrecy vs. openness -- could rage for years as the federal government adjusts to life after September 11.



 
 
 
 


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