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By Susan Roth Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 19, 2002 – Pacific Daily News)---The nation's emphasis on homeland security should push the federal government to pay more attention to the territories, says the new head of insular affairs at the Interior Department.

''The challenge for me is to get people to realize that issues affecting the territories are important for all of us,'' said David Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs.

That won't be easy at the huge Interior Department, where Cohen vies for attention with myriad other leaders on issues ranging from American Indian affairs to management of public lands.

But Cohen, 42, appointed in April and the first insular affairs head of Samoan descent, believes he has found a potentially effective strategy.

''The war on terrorism has really brought into focus the importance of keeping our territories strong,'' he said in an interview last week. ''If the territories are weak, they can be vulnerable points of entry to the United States and easy targets to attack the United States.

''We got pulled into World War II by an attack on a territory,'' Cohen noted, referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hawai‘i was not yet a state at the time.

''Weak territories invite all sorts of dangers,'' he said.

Depressed economies in the Pacific territories have contributed to lax security at military targets and airports and to problems preventing the entry of ''illegal goods and undesirable people,'' Cohen said.

''Territorial needs run the gamut from better airport security to patrolling the waters for smugglers to better security at strategic targets on Guam and elsewhere,'' he said.

Such security issues go hand in hand with his effort to help the territories achieve greater self-sufficiency and ensure federal money is spent wisely -- Cohen's other top priorities in his new position.

With his longtime knowledge of the islands, Cohen said, ''I fully understand why it's unreasonable to expect the territories to be self-sufficient now. My position is not judgmental. But for the good of the territories and of the United States, we have to move them toward self-sufficiency.''

Cohen, who takes his name from his mother's Jewish family, is Samoan on his father's side. His deputy assistant secretary title by itself represents a political gain for territorial issues. The position he holds used to be referred to as ''director.''

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said when she appointed Cohen that she was upgrading the position ''to demonstrate our strong commitment to resolving the tremendous, long-standing economic and infrastructure challenges facing the insular areas.''

Her appointment of someone with a strong connection to the territories shows she intends to give them more attention, Cohen said.

But the Office of Insular Affairs is still a small part of the Interior Department, ''so I have to be very diligent about keeping territorial issues front and center,'' Cohen said. He gets that chance in weekly meetings with the secretary and other high-ranking Interior officials.

Before arriving at the Interior Department, Cohen was an attorney at the Los Angeles office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, a large national corporate firm where Cohen represented international and domestic lenders and developers of infrastructure, telecommunications, oil and power projects.

Cohen worked as an immigration attorney in California from 1992 to 1995 and did pro bono legal work for immigrants there. He also was involved with the Samoan community and other Pacific Islander communities in California and was a volunteer for schools and substance abuse prevention programs. He is married with no children.

Cohen earned his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his business degree from the university's Wharton School of Business. He also holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in regional science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Politically ambitious, Cohen ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 and the California state Senate in 1994. He has been a long-time Republican donor and campaign volunteer.

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

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