White House Begins Task of Coordinating Homeland Security

The long-sought Department of Homeland Security will begin taking shape March 1 when the Secret Service, Customs Service and several huge agencies will be folded into the massive new department.

It will be fully operational by Sept. 30, 2003 -- more than two years after the attacks that prompted the overhaul.

Under the new Homeland Security law signed by President Bush on Monday, the White House is required to submit a reorganization timetable in the next 60 days.

Within 90 days, any of the 22 agencies joining the new Homeland Security Department may begin its transfer. All must be completed within a year after the president submits his plan.

One of the first requests of the Senate in the president's plan is approval of his secretary-designate, current Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, and his two deputy-designates, Navy Secretary Gordon England and Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson.

Ridge, who has served for 14 months in his current role, was tapped months ago to be the newest Cabinet member. Gordon and Hutchinson will serve as deputy director and undersecretary for border and transportation security respectively. All three face likely confirmation by the Senate.

By March 1, 2003, the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and a few other agencies should all be operating out of the new department. The White House warned Monday that the department will take more than a year to be up and running.

"I don't think we're really going to see a disruption of personnel. Whether at the borders, whether at the airports, whether at the seaports, whether in the labs, whether in the INS offices, wherever they are, they've been going to work doing homeland security work every single day. And our job is to make sure that they continue to do the job they've done and find ways to enhance their job performance to help them do an even better job," Ridge told Fox News.

Employees will eventually be moved to permanent housing provided by the new agency, according to an outline of the transfer distributed by the White House, even though 90 percent of the employees will be based outside of Washington.

Creating the department will involve merging $40 billion in budgets from a broad swath of well-protected bureaucratic turf. Critics warn that problems are sure to crop up.

Dwight Ink, a former Office of Management and Budget and General Services official, said, "I wouldn't expect all the warts to be worked out in the first year.''

Those problems may be eased by Ridge, who is a long-time ally of the president and well regarded by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A former six-term congressman, Ridge, a Vietnam War hero, immediately resigned as governor of Pennsylvania last year when the president asked him to serve as his director in the Office of Homeland Security.

"He's the right person for the job at this time. He brings all the talents -- great leader, great consensus builder -- and at the end of the day, (he's) a good kick-in-the-rear guy, which is what is going to be needed to get those folks' attention to develop a sense of urgency," said former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney.

During his time as director of the Office of Homeland Security, Ridge has won praise for opening up the lines of communication between Washington and local governments. He designed the color-coded national warning system, often joked about in late-night talk shows, but regarded as an effective tool in helping Americans understand the relative seriousness of constant threats against the nation.

Ridge, who was on the short-list of the president's vice presidential candidates, was the only serious contender for the job, Bush aides said.

He has a record of successfully responding to union concerns, which could help the White House as it tries to assure labor groups that the stripping of collective bargaining rights from the legislation will not hurt employees seeking redress from the federal government.

"[Ridge] treated us with decency and dignity and respect, and was more than fair to state employees at the collective bargaining table,'" said Ed Keller of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13, the largest public employees union in Pennsylvania.

Ridge has been operating out of the White House since taking the post, a situation that irked several congressional members who insisted that a new Cabinet department be organized that would give Congress the authority to approve the president's choice of secretary and oversight of the agency.

Bush, who initially opposed an independent Cabinet agency, relented last spring when congressional hearings revealed that intelligence firewalls prevented agencies from communicating with one another pre-Sept. 11.

Bush said Monday that even as the government undertakes the largest reorganization since the National Security Act that created the Defense Department, the United States can never be free of the terrorist threat.

"In a free and open society, no department of government can completely guarantee our safety against ruthless killers who move and plot in shadows," the president said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.