So there we were, watching last Monday as Boy George signed into law his homeland security bill. Normally I am fascinated by such presidential signings. Typically, the US president will sign his first name with one pen, his initial with another, and his surname with a third: then he will give the pens away to the Congressional sponsors of the legislation, so that each can claim to possess a historic artefact. This time, Bush signed with just one pen: a symbolically perfunctory act for what I believe to be a cynically conceived and shoddy piece of political opportunism.
I mentioned last week how a provision had been slipped into the bill by Republicans that will make it impossible to sue pharmaceutical giants for faulty vaccines that may cause autism in children. Another clause allows US companies that have moved abroad to carry out their business with the federal government tax-free; a third makes it difficult to hold private airport security firms responsible for lax security. And in the most egregious of all these sorts of slipped-in provisions, bountiful research funds into "security issues" are to be made available to the Texas A&M University - which just happens to border the constituency district of the new House Republican leader, the former insect exterminator Tom DeLay.
These are all examples of political corruption. But my objections to the new law are more central. For the midterm elections, President Bush made it a political issue and campaigned across the country on the Democrats' refusal to accept that all 170,000 employees of the new Department of Homeland Security should not be allowed to belong to a civil service union. At least one Democratic senator lost his seat over his refusal to go along with the bill and in so doing was openly accused of being unpatriotic - though he lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. But such was Bush's ruthless opportunism in playing the terrorism/patriotism card to garner votes over "homeland security".
And to what end? Temporary homeland security headquarters under the amiable supervision of the "director", Tom Ridge, must be set up within 60 days; but then, at a putative cost of $40bn, 22 government agencies will be gradually absorbed into one behemoth bureaucracy that will take years - maybe as long as a decade - to set up. Tens of thousands of workers, from departments ranging from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the Coast Guard, will wonder whether their civil service safeguards will still exist and whether their jobs are safe. By passing the legislation in the aftermath of the midterm election shocks, Congress signed away the right to shape the new department in the future - to step in, if necessary, to the internecine warfare that will be a daily ingredient on the 57-year-old Ridge's plate for years to come.
I may be cynical, but I see the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security as an empty ploy to get votes and accrue political capital for Bush and the Republicans - in the name of the holiest of holies, national security. There is no sound reason to suggest that one huge bureaucracy, the most sweeping change since the establishment of the defence department in 1947, will be any more effective than 22 separate agencies that know their role. Most glaringly deficient of all, the new Department of Homeland Security will not include the two bodies most apparently central to internal security: the FBI and CIA, absurdly, will not be part of Ridge's empire. Without the FBI and CIA on board, what are the grounds for setting up such a fearsome bureaucracy to monitor security?
Even intelligence-gathering is fast becoming politicised here. The instincts of the FBI, as a law-enforcement agency, are to apprehend wrongdoers; those of the CIA are to monitor and keep under surveillance dangerous people, rather than to arrest them. So Ridge's sub-department, whose task is to liaise with the FBI and the CIA, already has its work cut out. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, meanwhile - furious that the CIA is reporting minimal links between al-Qaeda and Iraq - has set up his own intelligence department within the defence department to find links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. In other words, politicised intelligence agencies - a contradiction in terms? - are spawning chaotically everywhere.
Thus we have a great new albatross of governmental bureaucracy, begotten in an absence of worked-out policy and driven through by ruthless political expediency. What with Admiral John Poindexter and his Information Awareness Office, it is all rather worrying: a mishmash of political show combined with real crackdowns on personal liberties.
Now, thanks to Bush's new bill, airline pilots will be allowed to carry guns: so stand by for the first tragic cockpit accident. The Bush administration, nearly 15 months after 11 September, still hasn't got its act together.