Disaster agency to coordinate terrorism response
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration will make the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- the first government agency on scene in the event of a hurricane or flood -- the central entity in its efforts to coordinate responses to domestic acts of terrorism, administration officials said Tuesday.
The move, announced Tuesday afternoon before a Senate subcommittee by FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, is just the first of many the administration plans to undertake to shore up government efforts to counter terrorism threats both at home and abroad.
"The president has ... directed me to establish the Office of National Preparedness at FEMA, to serve as the focal point for the coordination and implementation of preparedness and consequence management programs for dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction," Allbaugh told the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and State Subcommittee.
"No government responsibility is more fundamental than protecting the physical safety of its population," Allbaugh said. "In today's world this obligation includes protection against the use of weapons of mass destruction involving nuclear, biological, chemical agents and materials."
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King in an exclusive interview earlier in the day, revealed Bush's planned role for FEMA. He said the agency's response capabilities would serve only as a portion of a wider anti-terrorism effort.
"The threat to the continental United States and our infrastructure is changing and evolving," Cheney said, adding that weapons with immense destructive powers have been miniaturized and the use of computers by potential criminals has made law enforcement's job much more difficult.
Saying his focus would be "homeland defense," Cheney said the president has asked him to lead a task force on weapons of mass destruction and on how attacks with such weapons against U.S. citizens or personnel at home and overseas may be detected and stopped.
FEMA, Allbaugh insisted Tuesday, will be responsible only for devising plans of action to cope with an act of terrorism that has been carried out -- such as a chemical or biological attack -- and will have no hand in detecting or trying to put a stop to potential dire acts.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, noted by his count the United States has 46 agencies dedicated to anti-terrorism work. Asked by Roberts to clarify the president's intentions, Allbaugh said the new FEMA office would serve as a central relay and coordination point for relief efforts following an attack.
"We have many agencies responsible for a piece of the pie," he said. "We do not have a cohesive plan. What we do best is facilitate and coordinate, and that is something we will help the vice president with."
A broader anti-terrorism plan is expected to be unveiled by the administration later in the year.
Parade of Cabinet officers
Earlier in the day, key members of Bush's Cabinet outlined a detailed view of the government's massive efforts to combat international and domestic terrorism.
Speaking before the same Senate Appropriations subcommittee, a steady stream of the president's most trusted department heads painted a complex picture of the efforts their organizations have mounted to stop terrorists in their tracks -- before they strike.
That picture, requested by the subcommittee -- which must later this season determine funding levels for many of the anti- and counter-terrorist efforts engaged in by various sectors of the federal government -- took on a complex shape.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz described the anti-terrorism work each of their departments has to engage in to stall or cease the activities of terrorist networks.
Each, in some form, is involved in gathering intelligence, identifying and cutting funding sources for terrorism networks, and thwarting destructive acts before they are carried out.
The U.S. government employs multiple thousands of people in these efforts -- 33,000 at the Treasury Department alone, according to O'Neill -- in civilian and military capacities.
"America's international counter-terrorism capability is strong," Powell told the panel. "At all levels of government, we meet regularly, train together, share information, and use our resources as force multipliers."
"At the same time, we are working to build a stronger bridge between international and domestic efforts," he said. "Does that mean we are going to thwart or successfully defend against every terrorist act? Of course not, that is not possible."
Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, called three days of hearings so his panel and the rest of the Senate could divine a clear image of just how the new Bush administration plans to shore up anti-terrorism programs that may be lacking, or in some cases, may be redundant.
O'Neill's Treasury Department alone administers seven agencies that have to deal with the activities of potential terrorists, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Customs Service and the Secret Service.
Treasury's burden is great, O'Neill said, and has been made all the more challenging by the rapid development of communications and computing technology that could potentially give small groups of terrorists an edge over the larger organizations trying to keep tabs on their plans.
"We have become more 'cyber' in our lives," O'Neill said. "We are trying to deal with that."
Wolfowitz described the role of the Pentagon in wider anti-terrorism efforts as supportive in nature, saying military resources are made available to civilian officials in times of crisis.
Rarely, he intimated, would the military take a lead role in responding to an act of terrorism, or to thwart one, save for intelligence gathering efforts.
The Defense Department "stands ready to provide support when requested by the appropriate civilian authorities," he said.
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