Experts: Empower homeland office

More budgeting authority, coordination with state and local governments seen as necessary

The Office of Homeland Security needs more discretionary spending and authority -- including coordination with state and local governments -- several current and former government officials said at a conference this week.

The office was among the topics discussed during the Homeland Defense and Crisis Management conference, co-sponsored by E-Gov and the National Defense Industrial Association, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 18. (E-Gov is owned by 101 Communications LLC, which also owns Federal Computer Week.)

Stephen Ryan, former general counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and now an attorney in private practice, said the government has to decide under what model the White House Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, should operate.

He said Congress has to pass legislation providing the office, which was created by an executive order from President Bush, with more discretionary spending and veto authority over agency appropriations relating to homeland security. Ryan said that the office should be an "opening gambit" for a larger reorganization of some aspects of the federal government.

The power of the Office of Homeland Security (www.whitehouse.gov/homeland) appears to parallel the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, which can validate agency budgets relating to drug control policies and programs but cannot re-allocate resources, said Raymond Geoffroy, who heads the security and law enforcement branch of the operations division in the Marine Corps' Plans, Policies and Operations Department.

He said Ridge's office needs budgeting authority and oversight in order to provide a unified and coordinated approach among federal agencies involved in homeland security. Ridge previously said that his office is developing a multiyear budget cutting plan across all federal agencies and has pledged to cooperate with and assist state and local governments.

Mary Schiavo, former U.S. Transportation Department inspector general and now an aviation disaster attorney in private practice, said coordination among federal agencies as well as state and local efforts should become a function of Ridge's office "in a yet-unknown grant of power to be able to do that because it doesn't exist right now."

There were also greater calls for information sharing and coordination among the federal, state, and local governments as well as between the public and private sectors for protecting critical infrastructures, such as transportation systems and the electrical power grid.

George Foresman, deputy state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (www.vdem.state.va.us), said the federal government has to fully engage the state and local governments as equal partners in the fight against terrorism and assist them technologically and financially. "The nature of this nation's preparedness for terrorism is an ad hoc approach," he said.

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