WASHINGTON (AP) – The long-sought Department of Homeland Security will begin taking shape March 1 when the Secret Service, Customs Service and several huge agencies will be folded into the massive new department.

It will be fully operational by Sept. 30, 2003 – more than two years after the attacks that prompted the overhaul. Critics warn there will be problems along the way.

“The threat of mass murder on our own soil will be met with a unified, effective response,” President Bush said Monday as he signed a bill creating the new 170,000-person agency.

Bush chose longtime political ally Tom Ridge and two high-powered deputies to lead the new Department of Homeland Security and mount a “united, effective response” against terrorism on U.S. soil.

Within hours of signing the department into law Monday, Bush asked the Senate to approve his hand-picked leadership team and submitted his transition blueprint to Congress. That started a 90-day clock ticking after which agencies may begin moving to the new department.

The plan calls for a large portion of the department to take shape March 1, when the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and a few other agencies fold their employees and budgets into the new Cabinet entity.

Other changes will continue in phases even as the new agency searches for permanent housing, according to an outline of the shift distributed by the White House. According to the months-in-the-making plan, the final pieces will be in place by Sept. 30, 2003, more than two years after the attacks that prompted the overhaul and ahead of the year-plus transition process predicted earlier Monday by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

But even as Bush lauded the biggest government shake-up in more than a half-century as “historic action to defend the United States,” he offered a sobering assessment of the terrorist threat.

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