The timing of George W. Bush’s proposal for a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security–hastily unveiled when revelations about FBI lapses were hitting the front pages–smacks of high-level damage control. And it was followed by the announcement of the arrest in May of a Brooklyn-born Al Qaeda plotter who allegedly intended to set off a “dirty” bomb. This convenient coup was touted as an example of cooperation between the FBI and the CIA and used to bolster support for the Bush plan. Nevertheless, consolidating agencies that deal with the issues of domestic security and reducing bureaucratic rivalry and lack of direction make sense, if done right.

To be sure, reorganizing twenty-two agencies with 169,000 employees by Bush’s deadline of January 1, 2003, seems a staggering task. Eighty-eight Congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the components of the new department, and the turf wars will be fierce. And Bush’s legislative timetable nicely serves his political one: He’d love to see the subject monopolize the Congressional agenda in the run-up to the fall election, eclipsing the Democrats’ potent issues.

Politics aside, many questions occur at the outset of the debate on the new department. How, for example, will it solve the shortcomings of intelligence gathering and dissemination and the endemic rivalry between the FBI and the CIA? Will it be charged with coordinating intelligence collection by other agencies or will it be merely a “consumer” of their work?

And what of the non-national security functions of some of the agencies slated to be aggrandized into the new DHS, like FEMA, first responder to natural disasters? Will those worthy activities be relegated to secondary importance? As Representative John Conyers Jr. asks, if immigration is brought under the new department, what happens to the right of political asylum when applicants are reviewed under the criteria of national security?

These are a few of the hard questions related to mission and chain of command that must be dealt with by Congress. Pace Bush campaign rhetoric, government can work effectively for the public good, but if this project is to succeed, Congress members should not let themselves be rushed by a re-election-conscious Administration or bullied into swallowing criticisms by charges that they’re impeding the war effort. Issues of privacy and civil rights should be vigorously raised. The Ashcroft Justice Department’s heavy-handed immigration crackdown, for example, should be dropped in the trashcan. Such measures are both an affront to civil liberties and will alienate the Arab community–the best source of intelligence on Al Qaeda ops among us.

Homeland security does not mean building a better Fortress America. It means building a better world. US pressure on Israel and Palestine to achieve a just Middle East settlement would remove one of the main irritants breeding hatred of America. Verifiable nuclear disarmament and deterrence will more surely promote international stability than Bush’s pre-emptive war doctrine. Improving the lives of the world’s poor–122 million people will die by 2015 of hunger-related causes–will weaken terrorist support systems more effectively in the long run than sending in US Special Forces. Homeland security is a global matter.