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Last Updated

20 Nov 2002

Source:  Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2002.

After Many Months of Labor, the Birth of an Agency

Away from the spotlight, the Homeland Security Department takes shape. Much progress has been made, but there is still a way to go.

By Vicki Kemper, Times Staff Writer

No matter. Here at the tightly guarded headquarters of the homeland security transition planning office, mid-level 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?

Until now, the budding homeland security apparatus -- the White House office headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and a 24/7 operations center -- has had little direct involvement with the formulation or implementation of anti-terrorism policies. Those jobs have fallen to existing government agencies and the new Transportation Security Administration.

But from the moment President Bush reversed his long-standing opposition to a single anti-terrorism 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 massive 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 C. 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."

"It's a massive reorganization," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Ridge's White House Office of Homeland Security. "It's going to take some time."

Indeed, while a report released last month by a blue-ribbon task force applauded efforts to create the department, it warned that the nation "will not see the full effect of these fundamental changes for several years." For now, the report concluded, "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil."

Bush administration officials respond that they have already overseen significant security improvements. They cite the federalization of airport security workers, a dramatic increase in the government's supply of vaccines and other drugs needed for treatment of smallpox and other bioterrorism agents, systematic searches of shipping containers at U.S. and some foreign ports, and the expenditure of more than $31 billion.

Most important, they say, the new agency will overcome the government intelligence and security failures that made it possible for 19 hijackers to commandeer four airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, killing about 3,000 people.

The new department's information analysis unit will process intelligence information from the FBI, CIA and other security agencies. It will "connect the dots, assess the threats and then decide how to take action on them," Johndroe said.

The critical departure from how the government has operated, Johndroe said, is the action piece. "This will be the first time the federal government has had a department to do that."

Outside observers agree that, while the department faces enormous administrative, cultural and technological challenges, a lot has been done to get it up and running.

Even on the all-important task of figuring out how to convert intelligence information into action that will protect America from attack, "there is a great deal of momentum," said Phil Anderson, a senior fellow at the private Center for Strategic and International Studies who is familiar with some of the planning. "That's very reassuring."

As early as July, the Office of Management and Budget began directing the heads of the agencies that would move to the proposed department to stop all major spending on information technology and management systems until the needs of the new department could be determined.

"Although the Congress has not approved the new department," OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said in a July 19 memo, "these steps are critical to advance the federal government's overall homeland security mission in an efficient and cost-effective manner."

Transition staffers have been working hard to link the computer systems of the component agencies so that they can communicate with one another. Based on calls he has received soliciting his advice, Michael Scardaville, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, believes the transition office has almost completed this task.

Transition staffers have also been considering where to house the new department. "Don't expect a massive, Pentagon-style building," Johndroe said.

Anderson, whose work gets to the heart of the new department's mission, said it could offer the nation a new, more sophisticated level of "threat vulnerability integration" -- a method allocating defensive resources based on assessments of terrorist threats and security weaknesses.

Three administration officials -- Adm. James M. Loy, director of the Transportation Security Administration; Jerome M. Hauer, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Health and Human Services Department; and Winston P. Wiley, a deputy director of the CIA -- participated last month in "Silent Vector," a privately funded emergency simulation exercise conducted by Anderson and others.

The officials were given mock intelligence information indicating that within two days, terrorist teams would attack energy facilities on the East Coast.

Anderson would not say how the officials chose which of about 1,000 targets to protect, or how successful their efforts were. But he said his experience with the exercise and his knowledge of the transition operation assured him that homeland security officials "are doing what citizens should want them to do."

Light cautions that it is the not-so-sensational task of creating a workforce unified behind a core mission that poses the greatest challenge for the department.

"There's no technology I know on Earth that's going to make an immigration agent want to work with a customs inspector," he said. "It is going to take a secretary with a lot of grace and ability. If Moses were available, I'd appoint him."

In Moses' absence, the president is looking closely at Ridge, director of his Office of Homeland Security.