Ridge applies light touch to weighty task

So far, he's taken small, consensus-building steps. But controversial decisions await him.

Homeland security chief Tom Ridge has arguably one of America's most complicated post-Sept. 11 jobs: coaxing, pushing, even bludgeoning federal, state, and local governments - plus businesses and the public - into creating a safer nation.

But rather than taking a sledgehammer approach to such a massive rehab project, Mr. Ridge is so far tinkering like a fix-it guy armed with wrenches and screwdrivers.

In the nearly 100 days since his appointment, he's begun gathering important authority. Yet consider his approach to the tangle of border-agency troubles: He touts high-tech communication between them and, for now, stays vague on the more-radical idea of merging them into one.

Yet his consensus-heavy strategy may not last. Controversial choices loom. The former Pennsylvania governor himself says his job will get tougher: "I don't predict smooth sailing in the future," he says, in a phone interview from in his high-ceilinged West Wing office.

One of the more prickly tasks Ridge will face in coming weeks and months is resolving turf battles with the FBI and CIA, including getting them to share sensitive intelligence with border agencies. He'll also have to decide whether to merge the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs Service, and other agencies into one. Perhaps most controversial will be the question of whether to back creation of a military command that protects the homeland - thus bucking decades of tradition dictating no domestic role for the US military.

For now, Ridge and his team are just getting settled. He's still rearranging pictures on his office walls - including of his two teenagers and three golden labs. He's also commuting on weekends to Harrisburg, Pa., where his family lives in the governor's mansion.

His team is still forming. Eventually they'll have about 125 staffers. For now, they're working with far fewer.

Their top accomplishments so far:

• Getting some budget authority. In Washington, purse strings are key. Ridge now has some say-so in the federal budget process. "When you see the budget, you'll know they gave the new director of Homeland Security a lot of latitude," he says.

• Grabbing responsibility for issuing government warnings about potential terrorist attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued the first two of these controversial, vague warnings. Now that Ridge has this duty, he's scrambling to fine-tune the alerts. One model: the military's Defcon system, which has five alert levels.

• Striking a preliminary deal to boost border security between the US and Canada.

• Setting four long-term priority areas: border security, first responders (such as medical and fire-fighting personnel), defense against biological weapons, and intelligence and technology. Ridge will roll out a detailed plan this spring - although pieces of it will be unveiled in President Bush's January State of the Union address.

Overall, he's making good, if slow progress, observers say. "He's at least corralling some of the authorities he needs to be successful," says Paul Light of the Brookings Institution.

While he's quietly establishing himself in the Washington scene, his public approach is all about avoiding controversy and courting consensus - perhaps not surprising for a centrist, pro-choice Republican. (In fact, even though he's viewed skeptically by his party's far right, some observers see his current post as a springboard to the vice presidency in 2004 - if Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't run - or even the presidency in 2008.)

One noncontroversial area he's touting: technology. Many firms, including defense giants Raytheon and Lockheed, have shown their wares to Ridge in demonstrations he calls "very reassuring." High-tech solutions include super-sensitive sensors that can detect biological attacks.

But technology and consensus won't boost homeland security enough. That means tough decisions ahead.

On the FBI and CIA: One of Ridge's paramount tasks is coordinating the defense against terrorism. That means encouraging the sharing of information. But agencies like the FBI and CIA are often reluctant to share. For this and other reasons, Ridge's "biggest adversary in all this is John Ashcroft," says Mr. Light.

On a domestic military command: The Reconstruction-era "posse comitatus" law bars the military from domestic law-enforcement activity. But some administration officials want to dispense with this law - citing the need to use active-duty rigor and resources protect the homeland.

On border agencies: Many argue they should be consolidated. But for now, Ridge only talks of better communication: If they can "fuse their knowledge," he says, it will boost the ability to "make sure we're letting the right people into America."

Former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner agrees. A big bureaucratic merger, she says, would only distract the agents from their front-line tasks. Besides, if better communication doesn't work, "you can always bring in the sledgehammer later."

Indeed, Ridge and his staff often hint they have a sledgehammer behind their collective back. Says spokeswoman Susan Neely about the border agencies: "We don't rule out consolidating them at some point."

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