Leahy, Jeffords split on homeland security bill

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(Host) Senator James Jeffords says a proposed Homeland Security bill will do very little to help this country fight terrorism. Jeffords says the proposal will undermine local and regional disaster relief efforts in the future.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The legislation will combine 170,000 employees from 22 different federal agencies under one new department. These agencies include immigration, customs, energy and transportation security, the Coast Guard and FEMA – the federal emergency management agency.

Jeffords says the legislation will be ineffective in preventing future terrorist attacks because it doesn’t get at the core problem surrounding the attacks of September 11. Namely, an ill-prepared U.S. intelligence community:

(Jeffords) “To me, the whole problem, almost the whole problem, was out of intelligence. And the fact that we don’t have a good intelligence system and the one we have can’t even make a determination of risk when it’s staring them in the face. So I think this is a very, very bad bill and I’m going to oppose it all the way.”

(Kinzel) Jeffords is very upset that the legislation strips FEMA of its independent status. Jeffords, who is the outgoing chair of the Environment Committee, a panel that oversees FEMA, thinks folding the disaster relief department into the new massive agency is a big mistake.

Jeffords notes that FEMA was created as an independent department in the 1970s specifically to help facilitate local relief efforts that had been overlooked when FEMA was part of the Civil Defense Agency:

(Jeffords) “And so every time there was a forest fire or something, things fouled up. Now they want to go back to the way it was, when it wasn’t working well, instead of the way it is now when it’s working very well, as we found out on 9/11.”

(Kinzel) Senator Patrick Leahy describes himself as a reluctant supporter of the measure. Leahy says continued congressional oversight will be needed to make certain that newly grant powers in the bill are not abused:

(Leahy) “I worry that we’re giving too many blank checks to the administration and nobody wants to ask the question, How did Bin Laden get away? How did we miss some of these terrorists that we knew were here in the United States? And I think there are some who say, well if you ask a question you’re disloyal. It’s not so at all. We have to ask the questions because there’s going to be a lot of powers here for the Bush administration and it’s going to be extremely important that people ask, How are you using these powers?”

(Kinzel) Once the House and Senate resolve some technical issues in the legislation, President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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