WASHINGTON – Maryland will “have a seat at the table” in the new Homeland Security Department because of a provision, tucked into the bill, creating a directorate of national security who will work with Washington-area governments.
That official will work side-by-side with the secretary of the new Cabinet agency and will also work directly with Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., officials to coordinate local and federal anti-terror planning.
“There’s all this activity and many of us are spending dollars on the same thing,” said Jesse Jacobs, an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., an original sponsor of the provision. “There’s 17 major cities and counties in the region so all of this is coming under one jurisdiction.”
No other region of the country has a department officer dedicated to it in that way, even though New York officials had pushed for one.
“This area has a higher vulnerability than other areas and it needs that special focus,” said Maryland Security Council Director Jim Estepp, citing the region’s military bases, federal agencies and government contractors. “We need advocacy for more funding at the state and local level.”
The Office for National Capital Regional Coordination will help local governments determine the chain of command in case of regional terrorist attacks. It will also decide what is needed to improve security in each jurisdiction and help allocate funds during the budget process.
The director will most likely have little to no authority during real emergencies, instead seeking to make the region more self-sufficient during a crisis, said Tony Bullock, press secretary for Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.
“Who has the authority to close down streets and bridges? Who has the jurisdiction to close down the city? The 14th Street bridge? We need to have these discussions in advance” instead of after an attack, Bullock said.
“I remember distinctly during 9-11, I thought, `Are there any other planes?’ And we didn’t know what to tell people,” Bullock said. “Maryland residents work in D.C. and are potential targets, whether it’s a hairdresser on K Street or a lawyer in Northwest.”
Doxie McCoy, spokeswoman for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said such an office would have helped during the Sept. 11 attacks because the District, had no federal point of contact.
“We didn’t know if federal employees were supposed to get out early,” McCoy said. “Who is being released in case of a terrorist attack? Federal employees were just out in the streets. Nobody knew where to turn. It was a mass exodus.”
Estepp said the new position would allow for better intelligence sharing and communication improvements, which would keep information from becoming “diluted” between jurisdictions.
He also said the new post would help secure federal funding for training, field exercises, tests of emergency response plans, personal protection gear and detection equipment — money the state desperately needs.
Weekly conferences between the White House and the Office of Homeland Security have only helped so much and the new director would reduce the state’s vulnerability, Estepp said.
The Department of Homeland Security could cost $40 billion and take at least a year to assemble. No one has been picked for the new regional post, but the time to make personnel changes ends in March, McCoy said.
“There’s lot to be done, not to mention to figure out where to put the building,” McCoy said.
Bullock said while much of the director’s authority and responsibilities remain unclear, establishing the new position was a positive step by Congress.
“This will not be easy. Everyone has their own hazmat teams and bomb squads,” Bullock said. “They all need to work together as a team. We want to see this office build bridges.”