Making his mark

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rep. Christopher Cox was having breakfast at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when word came that the World Trade Center had been attacked.

Cox's meeting ended abruptly. Then, as he was driving back to Capitol Hill, the horror hit closer to home with the news that not only had the towers collapsed, but the Pentagon also had been struck.

The California Republican, chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, will never forget that day. And he is now in a position to do something to prevent similar tragedies.

As the new panel's chairman, Cox will oversee the development of the Homeland Security Department (DHS).

"The overriding purpose of this oversight committee will be to keep the Department of Homeland Security focused on what should be its essential mission: preventing future attacks on America's territory and its population," he said.

There's plenty to do and little time to do it. With war in Iraq and continued terrorist threats, DHS is simultaneously working to build a new structure and prevent terrorism. But combining 22 federal agencies into one is complicated, Cox said, and it will take a great reliance on technology to make it happen.

"Because an essential part of the committee's responsibility is oversight, we will include on staff and as consultants experts in fields ranging from intelligence to biological, nuclear and chemical weapons to cybersecurity" and information technology, he said.

Cox hopes to hold most of his congressional hearings in public, although there will be times when officials will have to go behind closed doors for a classified briefing. He will make sure that a common thread running through all the hearings is "a focus on achieving the mission of protecting Americans rather than making the merger work," he said.

The committee includes 50 House members — 27 Republicans and 23 Democrats — who bring their own egos and agendas to the panel. It includes Republicans who have had to surrender some power in their own committees to make way for the new one and Democrats who criticize President Bush for failing to provide enough money for homeland security efforts.

Cox also will have to handle complaints from Democratic presidential candidates who are likely to use homeland security as a campaign platform.

"It's fair to anticipate that candidates for president next year will want to make homeland security a centerpiece of the debate," he said. "We can't avoid politics. We should be able to avoid the ascendancy of politics over the good judgment of Congress when it comes to this subject."

Cox is well-known for his diplomacy and tact. As a White House staff member during the Reagan administration, he was considered one of the smartest members of Congress, according to Dean McGrath, Cox's friend and deputy chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.

"This is a critically important job, and it's a select committee, and the speaker picked him to be chairman of it for a reason," McGrath said. "He really does add status to what's a critically important job."

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, echoes that praise. "He's a terrific guy. His instincts are good ones. He's extraordinarily smart, capable and straightforward. He's the right person for the job," Ornstein said.

Nevertheless, it's a frustrating job because the new committee has no power over DHS' purse. That authority still rests with myriad congressional panels, Ornstein said.

"It's hard to have an impact with no power over authorizations or appropriations or being able to bludgeon the department if you need to," he said.

Still, Cox is quite certain he will make his mark and make it for the American people.

"Preventing further terrorist attacks on American territory and protecting the American population and infrastructure is not only the essential mission of the Department of Homeland Security, but indeed the primary responsibility of the federal government," he said.

THE COX FILE

Career highlights: First elected to Congress in 1988 from Southern California; former White House counsel; lawyer; professor.

Age: 50

Family: His wife, Rebecca, is a vice president at Continental Airlines Inc. and runs its Washington, D.C., office. They have three children, ages 4, 9 and 10.

Frequent flyer: He flies back to his home district at least three times a month and has more than 1.5 million frequent flyer miles on one airline.

Hobbies: He likes to build his own computers, but has slowly given that up because "it's so much cheaper to go out and buy it."

Congressional record: Among his accomplishments is passage of a ban on Internet taxes.

Quote: "I've been impressed thus far with the members of the Homeland Security Committee and their focus on sober and serious realism. The terrorists who threaten us don't distinguish between Republicans and Democrats."

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