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Can Tom Ridge Take on the Terrorists? It's Up to Bush

As the first-ever Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge is responsible for protecting America from terrorist attack. But on Oct. 8, as Ridge takes leave of the Pennsylvania governor's mansion for new West Wing digs, it's the political land mines he'll need to avoid.

Ridge already is being called the antiterrorism czar, a label that implies political impotence. After all, Washington's landscape is littered with failed czars--inflation czars, cancer czars, drug czars, education czars. Despite President Bush's promise that his antiterrorism chief will have Cabinet-level status and undefined control over 46 agencies and $11 billion in counterterrorism spending, the betting is that the czar won't get far unless he can give orders and control purse strings.

That's typical Washington pessimism. Ridge's success will depend not on money or legal authority, but on President Bush. It will be up to the Prez to give his longtime friend a call-anytime invite to the Oval Office. Bush will need to herald Ridge's policy recommendations with prime-time pomp to establish the czar's place in the political constellation. And Bush must make an example of anyone who tries to undercut Ridge. "You've got to empower Ridge in a way we've not seen before," says professor William Martel of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "You've got to make clear that this person is first among equals."

IDEA MAN. With a staff of 100 borrowed from key bureaus such as Health & Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ridge must open lines of communication between rivals. He'll need to evaluate technology to close gaps in the nation's defenses. And he must serve as a clearinghouse for ideas, such as issuing national I.D. cards or stockpiling smallpox vaccines.

Congress supports Ridge, but some members fear he'll fail without heavy artillery. They want to replace Ridge's bully pulpit with a Cabinet agency. "Ridge should have at least as much power as he had as governor of Pennsylvania, but I don't think he will," says Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman and Representative William "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.) want to shift billions of antiterrorism dollars from agencies such as the Coast Guard and Customs to a centralized bureau. "Ridge will be able to get things done for a while," Thornberry reasons. "But one of these days, some bureaucrat is going to say: `What if I don't do what you say?"'

Still, giving Ridge more firepower would lead to months of bureaucratic and political upheaval when Washington needs it least. Ridge already has many of the tools he needs, including experience as a governor, congressman, and Vietnam vet. Daniel P. Moynihan, an erstwhile social policy czar, proved that a desk and a typewriter in the Johnson and Nixon White Houses could be powerful tools in battles such as the war against poverty.

Ridge's Oct. 8 arrival also has the benefit of symbolic timing: He takes up his duties almost a month after the September 11 attacks. That is not to say that when the flag waving stops and America settles into a long, low-key war, passions for battling terrorism won't cool and Ridge won't be left to fight lonely skirmishes with agency heads unwilling to give up money or turf.

So it is imperative for Ridge to establish early on that when it comes to matters of domestic security, he speaks for the President. Congress should give the czar a chance while he has momentum and goodwill. Then, if Bush-style Homeland Security fails, lawmakers might want to dust off their plans for another Greek Revival temple of Big Government. Privacy advocates had high hopes that George W. Bush would champion their cause. During the 2000 campaign, Bush told BusinessWeek that he was a "privacy-rights person." Customers "should be allowed to opt in" to sharing information, he said. "The company has got to ask permission."

But since September 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft has pressed for expanded wiretap powers. And now Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy J. Muris is reversing the agency's previous call for tough new Internet privacy laws. Says Muris: "We don't need new laws, we need more law enforcement."

Privacy advocates blast the Bushies. "It seems they are taking steps backward," says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Instead of legislation, Muris will boost the FTC's privacy staff by 50% to sniff out identity thieves, deceptive spammers, and companies that violate their own privacy policies. He also plans to set up a national "do-not-call" list consumers can get on to avoid harassment by pesky telemarketers.

Key pro-privacy lawmakers are forging ahead anyway. "I think Muris is wrong," declares House Energy & Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). "We can't have California writing one rule and Oregon writing another."

With Tauzin and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) pushing for action, the issue won't die soon. But without Bush's help, it'll be difficult to get a privacy law through a Congress more concerned about terrorism than tech.

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