House passes Homeland Security department

W By John Mintz and Mike Allen

wASHINGTON – As the House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday night establishing a new Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration is pressing ahead with plans for a tightly choreographed sequence of actions starting in late January or early February to create the new agency.

Working from a 500-page playbook, government officials are preparing for an explosion of activity 60 days after President Bush signs the bill, when they will begin consolidating 22 separate agencies into a new federal powerhouse with 170,000 employees.

The reorganization, the largest in government since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947, is intended to fashion a single agency that would protect America – along with its seaports, nuclear plants, energy pipelines and other infrastructure – by using intelligence information. The new agency also would train police officers, firefighters and health workers to respond to terrorist attacks and develop new technologies to detect threats.

In the House Wednesday night, the bill passed by a vote of 299 to 121. Voting yes were 87 Democrats and 212 Republicans; voting no were 114 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 1 Independent.

With the Senate is poised to pass the homeland security bill in coming days, administration officials said Bush was likely to name a secretary for the new Cabinet-level department within weeks after the bill is signed, so the nominee can be confirmed by the Senate and on the job at the moment of the agency’s birth.

The front-runner for the job appears to be Tom Ridge, head of the interim homeland security office, who had told colleagues for months he did not want the job, well-placed sources said. Working out of a White House office, he has coordinated domestic security activities since October 2001, when Bush persuaded him to leave his position as governor of Pennsylvania.

Other names have been mentioned for the secretary job as well, but they are considered longer shots, sources said. They include Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and a former political aide to Bush in Texas, and retired Adm. James Loy, director of the Transportation Security Administration and a former Coast Guard commandant.

Two other people are likely to serve as top-level aides in the new department, informed sources said: Gordon England, the current Navy secretary and a former high-ranking executive of Lockheed Martin Corp., and John Gannon, a former deputy director of the CIA who has been helping run a transition office for the new department.

Under the legislation being considered by Congress, once the new department is up and running it will have one year to consolidate the agencies it will house. They include the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, FEMA and the recently formed Transportation Security Administration.

“We’re ready and waiting to move on this,” Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Ridge’s Office of Homeland Security.

A secret White House team has spent five months preparing plans for the Department of Homeland Security on the assumption that Congress would yield to Bush’s demands for reorganization, administration officials said Wednesday. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has taken the lead in doing much of the detail work.

“They’ve made quite a bit of progress and have done an enormous amount of planning out of the public’s view,” said Phil Anderson, a senior fellow and domestic security specialist at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies who has worked with administration officials on the plan.

One of the first actions on the new secretary’s agenda, officials said, will be creating a suspect watch list based on the dozen or so separate terrorist watch lists employed by other agencies, from the FBI and CIA to the Transportation Security Administration.

The agencies will be moved over in clusters over the year’s time. Back-office tasks such as payroll and other administrative tasks of the migrating agencies will be handled by their old departments during that period.

Ridge and his top assistants have spent months preparing for the day when the government would need to herd together the disparate agencies. They examined each agency’s telecommunications, computer and e-mail systems, trying to figure out how to enable them to communicate with one another. They scrutinized personnel, payroll and pension systems to imagine how to unify them.

Moreover, Ridge has brought in top corporate executives who have managed mergers, such as Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, to advise U.S. officials.

Ridge’s office also has struggled with seemingly trivial items that, in fact, loom as emotional issues for the agencies that are being asked to give up their independence – such as the new agency’s emblem.

Some agencies are resisting requests that their agents and inspectors wear uniforms with only the arm patches of the new department; they want their agencies’ emblem on their uniforms, too. Some people have chafed at the idea that Border Patrol employees and Customs and INS inspectors would be required to wear the same uniform and work under common command, sources said.