WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has decided to turn his department's anti-terrorism intelligence unit, now harnessed with the office that tries to protect bridges and power lines, into a streamlined organization that he says would move faster to assess potential threats.
The plan was outlined Tuesday in closed-door briefings for key members of Congress.
It is part of a blueprint Chertoff has been working on for months to slash layers of middle management and shake up the department, which was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by cobbling together disparate federal agencies, including the Customs Service and the Coast Guard.
Details of the reform plan are expected to be discussed today when Chertoff is scheduled to meet with reporters.
Among the high-profile agencies that may see changes are the Federal Air Marshal Service, the Border Patrol and other units that deal with immigration.
Chertoff took over in February from Tom Ridge.
As described by sources familiar with the congressional briefings, Chertoff's plans for reorganizing the department reflect the hard-charging style that marked his previous assignment in the Justice Department, where he helped shape the Patriot Act and other legal components of President Bush's war on terrorism.
Reshaping the Homeland Security Department, which merged long-established agencies with diverse missions, cultures and political constituencies, is widely seen as necessary if the department is to fulfill its mission.
But Chertoff must win the approval of a Congress that remains divided on strategy, tactics, spending priorities and other aspects of the fight against terrorism.
And any wide-ranging reorganization must contend with congressional rivalries over jurisdiction and turf.
"Some people will throw up their hands and say they're reorganizing chairs on the Titanic," said James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
"But you have to take the long-term view: This is not a two-year problem, it's a 20- or 30-year project. He's going to have to have the courage to explain to people why it's broken and why we need to fix it. And if he can do that, it will be fine," said Carafano, whose analyses of the department's needs are said to have contributed to Chertoff's thinking.
Congressional sources close to the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the secretary identified four areas where he thought the department most needed improvement: intelligence, policymaking, operations and preparedness.
Chertoff's priorities may reflect political realities as well as recent events. Better information sharing, preparedness in the event of mass casualties and border security are subjects popular with Congress and many Americans.
In Tuesday's briefing, Chertoff noted that transportation security was an important part of the department's mandate.
The latter was seen by some as a bow to congressional concern about mass transit after last week's London subway and bus attacks.
The Senate debate on a Homeland Security spending bill has focused on the relatively modest federal outlay for mass transit compared with commercial aviation security.
One of Chertoff's most significant proposals, congressional and outside sources said, will be for the creation of a high-level unit to oversee strategic policy planning, relations with the private sector -- which is critical on such issues as protecting chemical facilities, nuclear power plants, vital computer systems and other potential targets -- as well as the department's dealings with agencies of other governments.
Since its creation in March 2003, the department has had no such entity to act as a "brain," as one congressional staffer put it.
"There is no center of gravity for making national policy strategies," said David Heyman, director of the domestic security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Heyman also is considered to have played a role in shaping Chertoff's thinking.
"With 22 legacy agencies, each with its own policy shop, there is no real place, other than the secretary himself, to forge and reconcile national policy agenda," Heyman said. "It's an extremely important, if not essential, new position."
The policy "shop" would require the creation of an undersecretary for policy, one of several new positions that congressional staffers say would be needed under the proposed changes.