Watch list target pushed to summer's end

Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge said merging the 12 terrorist watch lists into one file for federal, state and local authorized agencies will be completed by the end of the summer.

Testifying before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee today about the Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2005 budget priorities, Ridge said officials are working around-the-clock to merge the lists into the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center. Officials missed a Dec. 1 deadline to complete the consolidation.

Ridge said it's a cumbersome and time-consuming process to check names against the list.

Although it was a cordial hearing, Democrats on the committee largely zeroed in on the problems with the watch list consolidation and why it's being led by the FBI and why the CIA is housing the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. They said a reason DHS was formed was to coordinate such intelligence actions.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said information he's received suggests bureaucratic battles between the various intelligence collection agencies still exist. "It looks like you're wading through a sea of molasses here," he said.

Ridge said DHS has access to information generated by the entire intelligence community and that the department's information analysis unit is designated to fuse information from all sources, including state and local ones. He said the challenge is to get information and then analyze it, but "even in that analysis here, there's as much art as there is science."

The secretary also defended the administration's 2005 funding priorities from the Coast Guard to securing borders, ports and airports to grants to universities. Last week, the administration unveiled a $40.2 billion budget request, representing a 10-percent hike over 2004 levels, for the department.

However, senators took issue with the reductions in state and local homeland security funding, especially to first responders. The administration is proposing $3.6 billion in first responder funds, which represents at least a $452 million decrease from this year's level.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee's chairwoman who largely praised DHS and Ridge for their work, said: "And while our urban areas are receiving unprecedented federal assistance, the concerns and vulnerabilities of our small cities, small towns and small states must not be overlooked. Perhaps more than any other area, this one gets shortchanged in the administration's budget request."

Although Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said progress has been made, the country needs "far more funded and focused leadership" to secure the homeland.

"The Administration's fiscal year 2005 budget — which includes a stunning 30 percent cut, governmentwide, for first responders — is the latest evidence of shortchanging the homeland side of the war against terrorism," he said.

Ridge said more than $15 billion has been allocated for first responders since fiscal 2001. He said funds are being based on critical infrastructures in each state and on their risk and threat assessments. Recently, he said states submitted their strategic security requirements to the Office of Domestic Preparedness. Those plans will be looked at and the department will allocate funding based on formulas, but also has some flexibility.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) added he's heard many local governments complain about the slow trickle of federal funds to them through the states.

"We are hearing it as well, Senator," replied Ridge, adding that the department along with state and local governments will help break the logjam through a standardized process.

He said there's still about $8 billion to $9 billion to be distributed, including some remaining fiscal 2002 dollars, about half the fiscal 2003 funds and all of fiscal 2004 money. He said the department will also take a look at which states did a good job of funneling that money quickly to locals.

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