Office of the Press Secretary

March 19, 2002


[excerpts on Homeland Security, Congress]


Q: On border security, has the President signed off on a plan to merge three agencies that deal with border security? And if he hasn't signed off, has he been presented with that option?

MR. FLEISCHER: This morning at a meeting of the Homeland Security Council the President was presented with a recommendation on how to enhance security at the nation's borders. The President has not made any decision yet. The matter is under review.

The President is very satisfied that his administration is moving forward to present good ideas about how to protect the border. Some of those ideas, of course, involve consolidation.

Q: Do you expect a quick decision?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President did not indicate what the timing would be.

Q: Ari, can I just confirm a couple things? Is the recommendation merging INS and U.S. Customs?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to get into specifics of a recommendation that was shared with the President at a private meeting.

Q: And one other thing. Wasn't Governor Ridge push with something broader, merging, not just INS, Customs, other parts of the inspection service at Agriculture, so why not go even more expanded?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as part of the Governor's mission to protect homeland security and to work in a coordinating fashion with all the agencies that have operational responsibility, the Governor has been looking at a series of ideas for how to enhance security along the border. And that's the charge the President gave him.

And, as I indicated, there was a meeting this morning. The President has received a recommendation. Because of the nature of a meeting where the President receives these recommendations, until the President has something to say, I'm not going to discuss the specifics of it.

Q: Ari, on that topic, why does the White House continue to resist the idea of making the Office of Homeland Security a Cabinet-level department with its own budgetary authority and its own responsibility to Congress?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the Office of Homeland Security, under Governor Ridge, is working extraordinarily well. It is fulfilling the exact mission that the President set out for homeland security when the President announced it in the wake of the attack on our nation.

If you remember, the President's speech to Congress on September 20th announced that for the first time the White House will have an Office of Homeland Security, that really is parallel to the long-standing bipartisan tradition of the Office of National Security. It is a coordinating entity that works with the operational agencies.

The President believes that Governor Ridge is doing a superb job at it. He believes that Governor Ridge is an excellent advisor to him, and that the Governor does a very important function for the President and the White House by coordinating the various agencies, just as the National Security Advisor does in her capacity.

Q: But if we're talking about consolidating all of these agencies, why not create a Department of Homeland Security, as many lawmakers have suggested? And rather than take Customs, Border, whatever, and put it all under DOJ, why not bring it all under the auspices, under one umbrella of Homeland Security?

MR. FLEISCHER: The reason for that, John, is if you take a look at how the federal government is set up across the myriad of agencies, there are more than a dozen agencies, many of which have components that deal with homeland security in one form or another. I'm not aware of a single proposal on Capitol Hill that would take every single one of those agencies out from their current missions and put them under Homeland Security.

So even if you took half of them out and put them under a Cabinet level Office of Homeland Security, the White House would still need, in the President's estimation, an advisor on how to coordinate all that myriad of activities the federal government is involved in. So creating a Cabinet office doesn't solve the problem. You still will have agencies within the federal government that have to be coordinated. So the answer is, creating a Cabinet post doesn't solve anything. The White House needs a coordinator to work with the agencies, wherever they are.

Q: So why then is the Lieberman bill a bad idea, in your estimation?

MR. FLEISCHER: The Lieberman bill? I don't -- your specifics. Do you want to define the Lieberman bill?

Q: Well, it would take a lot of those agencies that you just talked about and put them under the auspices of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, for the exact reasons I mentioned, that even if you had a Cabinet level office, the White House would still need somebody to help coordinate the entities that, whether they're in a Cabinet agency or wherever they are, they still require coordination. Just like the National Security Advisor has proved to be, over decades, a very informative and helpful way for the Congress and for the President and for the people to have national security coordinated.

Homeland security, whether it's under a Cabinet agency or whether it's elsewhere, still needs coordination, and that's what the President is getting out of the Homeland Security Advisor.

Q: So you're saying, even if you had a Department of Homeland Security, you'd still need a Homeland Security Advisor to advise the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: That creating a Cabinet-level post doesn't solve the issue of how do you coordinate all the agencies that are involved.


Q: Just, generally, why would you need to reorganize any agencies if you have somebody who is coordinating -- effectively coordinating the activities of agencies?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one of the things the President asked Governor Ridge to do when he came on as Homeland Security Advisor is take a fresh look at how the government is doing its business. Obviously, the government, in any issue -- whether it's homeland security or anything domestic -- has been doing it a certain way and doing it for a long time. And you just reach a point in government where people stop asking the question "is it effective" and they continue to say, "well, that's the way it's always been."

So Governor Ridge's challenge and charge was to come in and take a new look and a fresh look at the government agencies with an eye toward what can and should be improved, learning the lessons of September 11th. And that's his mission and that's what he is working on.

Q: And my other question is, do you feel though, that -- I mean, nothing's more difficult than trying to reorganize the bureaucracy --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's true.

Q: -- that any proposal that you might forward is going to be jeopardized or made less likely because you continue to refuse to let Mr. Ridge go to the Hill to testify? I mean, I know you say it's tradition, but traditions are often broken. I mean, why not?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I don't think there's any sense that there should be a connection between what is the right, best policy for the country based on substance, and a totally unrelated issue that is a much more process-related issue that involves changing a long-standing, successful, bipartisan tradition that Congresses have honored going back decades.

Q: But you know it's not unrelated. I mean, it is very related --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that if somebody were to say that this is a good -- if the President were to act on this recommendation and say on the Hill, this is a good idea, but we're going to oppose a good idea because we don't like the process. I think the American people want the focus to be on substance and on the quality of ideas. And that's where the President is going to focus his thoughts and his attention.

The other issue is something that you've heard the President talk about directly. Now, the President feels very strongly about it and I don't see that changing.


Q: Ari, to go back to Ridge just briefly, I mean, if he's in charge of reviewing the situation and coming up with fresh ideas, I mean, wouldn't he be the most logical person to explain these ideas to Congress?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this goes back to a case that could be made about any number of people. That would be a real change in the way Congress does its business, in terms of who they seek to come up from the executive branch to testify. And the reason I say that is, Governor Ridge has gone up to the Hill on numerous, numerous occasions. He has met with members of both parties in private and the caucuses, answered their questions, they have received answers to all the questions they have in multiple, different forums.

The question is, Congress is indicating they want to change that long-standing bipartisan tradition and have him come up now and actually testify. That would be a significant change from the way Congress has treated people who are in an advisory context to the President. And that is what Governor Ridge does; he is a coordinator, he is an advisor to the President, just as the National Security Advisor is, just as many other people who are assistants to the President fulfill that role.

The people who are charged by statute and by a concern for good government who are going up to testify before the Hill are the operational officials -- the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense. Congress receives its information on a regular, ongoing basis through the testimony of those officials. I think it's unusual for Congress to turn it around and change the way it's worked and worked well for many a decade and now, for the first time, say we seek to have an advisor to the President who does not have operational responsibility come up and testify, even though they've gotten their questions answered in multiple other forums by Governor Ridge.


Q: Same old topic, Ari. If you say that Governor Ridge has gone up and given a lot of briefings to committee, caucuses, whatever, what do you make of all of this talk coming out of the Senate about possible subpoenas to get him up to the Hill, letters from Senator Byrd and Senator Stevens, the Republican side, requesting a meeting with the President to explain why Governor Ridge needs to come up? What are they doing up there?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a surprising development. I think it's a surprising departure from the usual bipartisan way Capitol Hill for decades has treated advisors to the President who are not in operational roles. The people who will be subjected to these types of subpoenas, if this is the case, are not Cabinet-level officials who have a statutory obligation and an importance to good government of going up and testifying on the Hill. This would open up a whole new development where the legislative branch would then bring down to the Congress advisors to the President whose jobs are to give the President advice.

Now, this has been treated with honor and respect for decades. What I think is surprising and is unusual is that the Congress for the first time seeks to change and break that long-standing tradition. It's worked, and worked very well for the Congress, for Presidents of both parties, and for the country. And under that, the Chief of Staff to the President could be called to testify, that hasn't happened; the legal counsel to the President could be called to testify, that hasn't happened; the National Security Advisor, that hasn't happened.

So why the departure, why the break? The President thinks the system has worked, and worked well. And he asks Congress to honor that long-standing bipartisan tradition.

Q: Do you see this as another little step in the erosion of Presidential powers?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that there is no question that when you open these doors, Congress keeps swinging them open wider, particularly given the fact that Governor Ridge has met with numerous members of both parties to answer all the questions that they have. The contact is regular, the contact is frequent. The contact is not in the form in sworn testimony or testimony before a committee. That's as it's always been, and that has served the Congress well, the President well and the nation well for decades.

Q: But aren't you sort of falling back on precedent? And can't you see from their perspective that Governor Ridge is in what is a new job, created post-September 11th, a job that is about how to protect the country in the wake of the attacks, and that Congress might feel equally responsible in the way the executive branch does for ensuring that this doesn't happen again, and that they want to be a part of it. And it's not quite the --

MR. FLEISCHER: They are a part of it.

Q: And it's not quite the same as it has been in the past. I mean, you can't just say, oh my God, they're abandoning tradition that's held for years, when, in fact, everything changed on September 11th, and that's why Ridge is in this job.

MR. FLEISCHER: But that same argument would suggest that every advisor to the President should and can be called before the Congress to testify. That same argument can be made about national security. It's not being made because the Congress is honoring a long-standing bipartisan tradition of the National Security Advisor being seen as an advisor to the President, coordinating the Departments of Defense and CIA and other entities involving the war against terrorism. That same argument could equally be made to somebody else whose role has changed dramatically and importantly since September 11th.

The point I'm making is we have a system of checks and balances that is based on bipartisanship and on sharing of information. And it's a surprising development for Congress to be seeking to change that at a time when everybody needs to be working together.

Q: Ari, can I just follow up? Because that being said, Democrats -- it's not just coming from Democrats. Even some Republicans are saying that there should be an exception made --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q: -- and Ridge should come before the Congress. So can you confirm if there are any discussions between the administration and the Congress about a compromise? Maybe coming before a group of members, a televised briefing -- some kind of middle ground, not the sworn testimony?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can only tell you the President feels very strongly about it.

Q: You can't say if there is compromise, any discussion about a compromise?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President feels very strongly about honoring that tradition that has worked, and worked so well, for everybody concerned. The President thinks it would be a mistake that would not serve the Congress well, the executive branch well or, frankly, the country well.

Information continues to flow, and flow freely. Questions should be asked, they are asked by members of Congress. Governor Ridge answers them; they have the answers. So the only issue is the forum by which members of Congress hear those answers. And that's the issue that involves a break of precedent.