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House Democrat vows scrutiny on homeland security

(Reuters circulated the following article on January 29.)

WASHINGTON -- The new Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives homeland security panel on Monday vowed aggressive scrutiny of Bush administration policies to protect the United States from attack.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said the House Committee on Homeland Security would take a hard look at efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to integrate the 22 agencies that comprise its operations.

“DHS has got to get its house in order,” Thompson said in a speech laying out his priorities for the panel following the Democratic takeover of Congress earlier this month.

“I look at homeland security and I say we have to have a vision, otherwise we will perish,” he said.

Thompson said the 33-member committee would examine closely the massive department’s organizational and management structure.

Critics say the Department of Homeland Security, which Congress established in 2002 in response to the September 11 attacks, will take years to become a coordinated, effective government bureaucracy.

Thompson specifically called into question a recent DHS reorganization that he said puts the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees U.S. disaster response, in the same program as the US-VISIT immigration and border security program.

But Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said US-VISIT and FEMA were not being placed together and issued a department statement showing that the immigration and border security initiative would operate under a separate directorate.

‘A GOOD SIGN’

FEMA has been widely criticized for mounting an inadequate response to disasters created by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Thompson said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has shown a willingness to work with the Democrat-controlled panel since Democrats won control of Congress in the November election.

“We have met more with the secretary since November 7 than we met the entire year of 2006. So hopefully that’s a good sign,” he said at a luncheon co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Thompson said he would propose legislation next month to upgrade the U.S. mass transit rail and bus systems. He said the United States currently spends $9 per passenger on air security but only 2 cents per passenger on rail security.

“It’s one of those unmet needs,” he said. “Not only will we look at tunnels and other things but we’ll also look at the transportation of hazardous materials.”

Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker said the Bush administration was ready for Thompson’s new legislative oversight measure.

“We expect it. In some respects, it will make us a better department,” Baker said.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

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