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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Tom Ridge won unanimous Senate confirmation Wednesday as the first secretary of homeland security, taking on the daunting task of building from scratch a vast new federal agency while moving quickly to head off terrorist threats.
The Senate voted 94-0 to endorse the former Pennsylvania governor, but only after signaling that Ridge 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."
President Bush, in a statement, welcomed the confirmation of his longtime friend: "With today's historic vote, the Senate has demonstrated our shared commitment to doing everything we can to secure our homeland," he said.
The 57-year-old Ridge, who became Bush's chief adviser on homeland defense after the Sept. 11 attacks, takes over a department that is still without a headquarters and months away from getting organized. When it evolves, it will bring 22 security-related agencies and 170,000 civil servants under one roof.
Ridge 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.
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.
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 until March 1 and it will be months before it is fully functioning.
Among the agencies to become part of the new agency are the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies with security-related functions.
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 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 Bush's adviser as head of the White House Office of Homeland Security.
Last Friday the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously approved Ridge's 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."
Later Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee was to hear testimony from Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman from Arkansas and director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on his nomination to be the new department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)