President Bush tonight urged Congress to support a new terrorist-fighting Cabinet department that would consolidate several federal agencies in the war on terrorism at home.
"America is leading the civilized world in a titanic struggle against terror," Bush said. "Freedom and fear are at war — and freedom is winning."
In a nationwide address from the White House, Bush proposed the largest government restructure in decades as he called for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. His address came hours after FBI Director Robert Mueller and an FBI whistle-blower testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"Tonight, I ask the Congress to join me in creating a single permanent department with an overriding and urgent mission: securing the American homeland and protecting the American people," Bush said. Read a transcript.
Bush hopes to have the department in place by Jan. 1. He said the purpose of the plan was not to expand government's bureaucracy as some Republicans feared.
"The reason to create this department is not to increase the size of government, but to increase its focus and effectiveness. The staff of this new department will be largely drawn from the agencies we are combining," Bush said. "By ending duplication and overlap, we will spend less on overhead, and more on protecting America. This reorganization will give the good people of our government their best opportunity to succeed, by organizing our resources in a way that is thorough and unified."
Congress would have to approve the plan and Bush urged Americans to encourage their representatives to support the new Department of Homeland Security.
The Department of Homeland Security would inherit 169,000 employees and $37.4 billion in budgets from the agencies it would absorb, including the nation's embattled Immigration and Customs services. Tom Ridge, who now heads the Office of Homeland Security, is expected to be the president's choice to be the new department's first secretary.
"We needed to restructure government in a 21st Century way to deal with the new threat," posed by terrorists, Ridge said on ABCNEWS after Bush's speech.
No More Buffers From Congress
Soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bush created the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate the government's approach to domestic security. But almost from the beginning, the office and its leaders were hobbled by a lack of clear authority and bureaucratic hurdles.
Bush's initial goal was to avoid turning the office into a Cabinet position despite calls from lawmakers for him to do just that. One reason Bush wanted to keep homeland security out of the Cabinet was to provide some buffer against congressional questioning.
In the end, however, Bush decided a Cabinet position was the best way to change the government's approach to defense at home, administration sources said.
Bush wants the new department to have four divisions:
Border transportation and security — To protect the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S. shoreline. Would take over the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard.
Information analysis and infrastructure protection — To compile and analyze information about potential threats. Would pull information from several agencies, including the CIA and FBI.
Emergency preparedness and response — To include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now an independent agency.
Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear countermeasures — To prepare the country for a range of terrorist threats.
The Secret Service, which specializes in threat assessments and security at high-profile events, would remain intact after moving from Treasury to the new department. It is one of several agencies that would continue their non-homeland defense chores at the new department.
The FBI and CIA also would remain independent agencies.
General Welcome From Congress
Congressional leaders generally welcomed Bush's proposal but indicated that some parts of the ambitious new plan may face challenges as it tries to gain final approval in Congress.
"Today, the president is taking bold steps that will fundamentally shift the priorities of the nation to meet the threats we face," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R- Texas. "He recognizes that new thinking is required to win this new kind of war."
However, some believed the president's reorganization was perhaps an overly ambitious task with an ongoing threat of a terrorist attack facing the nation Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he wasn't sure a reorganization was needed.
"The question is whether shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic is the way to go," he said.
Some White House officials acknowledged the proposal could be watered down as the affected agencies — and the 88 congressional committees and subcommittees that oversee them — may fight to retain their powers.
Biggest Legislative Push in 2002
Bush said the new department represented the most extensive government reorganization since the 1940s, when Harry Truman created the present-day Defense Department and the CIA to fight the Cold War.
"This is likely to be the most significant piece of legislation the president introduces this term," said ABCNEWS' analyst George Stephanopoulos.
To prevent government departments and agencies from taking pre-emptive steps to harm the president's plan, the White House waited until Wednesday to brief most of the Cabinet, Stephanopoulos said.
ABCNEWS White House correspondent Terry Moran said the secrecy was prompted by an incident in May when Tom Ridge discussed proposed changes to securing America's borders with other government officials. Within 24 hours, that proposal was leaked to the press.