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Already, security agency taking shape

On the eighth and 10th floors of a nondescript office building two blocks from the White House, hidden from tourist and terrorist alike, the Homeland Security Department is taking shape memo by memo and step by carefully managed step.

It has no secretary. It has no staff. In fact, the president hasn't yet signed the legislation authorizing it to exist.

No matter. Here at the tightly guarded headquarters of the homeland security transition planning office, midlevel officials have labored for five months to fashion a single, effective department from 22 agencies now scattered across the bureaucratic landscape.

The transition office is wallowing in administrative details: Should its 170,000 employees use the Microsoft Outlook e-mail program or Lotus Notes? At the same time, it is pondering the deepest and most intractable questions: Given limited resources, which potential terrorist targets should the government protect _ and which should it not?

From the moment President Bush reversed his long-standing opposition to a single antiterrorism agency and instead proposed the largest government reshuffle since the Truman administration, working groups made up of officials from all the affected agencies have been laying the administrative foundation on which the gigantic new department will stand.

That the administration gave itself such a long head start on the process _ dictating procurement policy to some agencies, for example, even as Congress was debating the very shape and rules of the new department _ reflects both a political commitment to making the agency work and a realistic acknowledgment of just how difficult that will be.

"They have their eyes wide open on the administrative burdens they face," said Paul Light, a government scholar and vice president at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

"The federal government is not a monolith," he said, and the process of trying to merge incompatible personnel, financial and computer networks from different agencies shows that "this is not a plug-and-play system."

A few weeks after Bush signs the legislation, the administration will disclose to Congress the timing for each agency to enter the new department, said Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security who is expected to be named the department's first secretary. The doors open officially 60 days after Bush signs the bill.

Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, said Tuesday, "I may need to go to church every day" for guidance in the largest reorganization of the government since the creation of the Defense Department in the 1940s. He said he planned to have early meetings with leaders of the unions that represent the agency's workers and that had protested bitterly provisions in the bill creating the department that will severely restrict civil service protections.

In Washington, where proximity is power, one question is where the new department will have its headquarters.

"I've heard Crystal City, Pentagon City, across the river, over hill, over dale, but if I were secretary I'd urge that the department be downtown," Light said.

"All of the little things that give you an identity in this town are important: stationery, a flag, a logo, and they'd better have a Web site open pretty soon."

On that subject, Johndroe said only, "Don't expect a massive, Pentagon-style building."

The administration has made clear there will be major changes in the jobs of many.

"The idea is to get people from the back office into the front lines," Johndroe said. "Where there are functions that are the same, how can we combine and better utilize personnel and equipment?"

Agencies as diverse as the Secret Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, Coast Guard, the animal and plant health inspection service, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and the Commerce Department's critical infrastructure assurance office will be in the new department.

While the White House says the consolidation will be completed in little more than a year, creating a "cohesive culture is a multiyear effort that needs consistent and persistent effort from the top," said comptroller general David Walker, who runs the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Labor unions remain skeptical of the effort.

"There's going to have to be a lot of work done to make this something other than a disaster," said Phil Kete of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union with many members who will work for the new department. "Reorganizations like this are usually counterproductive because of the downtime associated with people worrying about reorganization."

With most workers guarding borders, airports and the coasts, only about 10 percent of the department's 170,000 employees will be in the Washington region.

The Department of Homeland Security will be the third-largest employer in the executive branch of the federal government, after the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Its budget is expected to be about $35.5-billion for fiscal 2003.

But money is one of many things the department lacks.

Congress hasn't appropriated any yet and will deal with that when it returns in January.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.