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Senate Confirms Tom Ridge

032502, story, Tom Ridge Homeland Security, JM
CBS/AP
The Senate has unanimously confirmed former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the first secretary of the new Homeland Security Department.

Ridge's task is enormous – to protect the nation from terrorist attack. His department doesn't have a building or any real staff yet, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss, but when it's all put together it will be huge, absorbing 22 agencies ranging from the Coast Guard and Border Patrol to the Secret Service.

Wednesday's 94-0 vote to endorse Ridge came after senators signaled that he will be held accountable for protecting civil liberties as he embarks on the mission of protecting the nation from terrorists. The vote came just two days before the new department is to come into being.

"It is essential that Gov. Ridge understand that he will be responsible not only for defending the homeland, but also for defending against the abuse of power within the new department," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Ridge, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will be assuming "a Cabinet post that may well be the most challenging position created by Congress during the last 50 years."

The 57-year-old Ridge, who became President Bush's chief adviser on homeland defense after the Sept. 11 attacks, will continue working out of his White House West Wing office and a transition office in downtown Washington until a decision is made on a headquarters, aides said.

Mr. Bush praised the Senate's action, saying it demonstrates a "shared commitment to doing everything we can to secure our homeland."

Before the vote, senators presented a laundry list of problems that Ridge must confront — including border, port, rail and air cargo security, safe water and food supplies, federal coordination with local law enforcement, and the balancing act of gathering intelligence without violating civil liberties and privacy rights.

Collins said Ridge must also ensure that other security functions of agencies being absorbed into the department — such as the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue missions — not be neglected.

Mr. Bush nominated Ridge to head the new department last November on the same day he signed into law the biggest federal reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947.

The department officially comes into being on Jan. 24, but it won't assume operational control of the agencies and their 170,000 employees until March 1, and it will be months before it is fully functioning.

The CIA and FBI, responsible for intelligence analysis, will coordinate with the Homeland Security Department but will remain independent.

Ridge, a Harvard graduate and decorated Vietnam War veteran, was elected to the House in 1982 from his hometown area of Erie, Pa., and served for 12 years. In 1994 he became Pennsylvania's governor, winning re-election in 1998.

Close to Mr. Bush, he was among those considered as a possible running mate on the Republican ticket in 2000, After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Ridge resigned as governor to become the president's adviser as head of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Last Friday the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously approved his nomination.

"The road will be long, and the mission difficult," Ridge told the hearing. The new department, he said, "will not in and of itself be able to stop all attempts by those who wish to do us harm."