By night, they clip.

Five times a week at 2 a.m., a staff of five troops into the Pentagon's quiet corridors, ready to read, clip, paste and assemble a document that, by dawn, will land on the desks and doorsteps of top Defense Department officials.

For almost four decades the Pentagon's Current News Early Bird Edition has distilled information from scores of newspapers and dozens of periodicals into a compact package.

If the heart of the Early Bird is the clipping crew -- the scissors-wielding group of defense workers who plow through stacks of newsprint, scanning and snipping defense-related articles -- its brain is Harry Zubkoff.

Chief of the Pentagon's news clipping and analysis service, Zubkoff has held the same job for 36 years, supervising the twin branches of Research and Current News -- and the Early Bird.

When he retires Tuesday, he will leave a thriving legacy that grew during his tenure from a thin sheaf copied on a Photostat machine to a 16-page Early Bird with a circulation of 6,000 and numerous supplemental and special editions. It is the first bit of news many military and civilian leaders read each morning. Sometimes, it is all they take time to read.

In a recent interview in his C-ring office, surrounded by stacks of newspapers, shelves of periodicals and trinkets such as a miniature rubber Pink Panther, Zubkoff spoke in succinct phrases, giving the clip-sheet version of his career.

"I just grew up into it, so to speak. I came to work in this office 36 years ago. We started the Current News when I came in. I grew, and it grew, and the office grew."

Today, the Early Bird is whisked around Washington each morning -- and, thanks to electronic communication, around the world. Copies go to the commander of the Navy's Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, to the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, to NATO headquarters in Brussels, to NASA, the CIA, the White House and Congress.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's copy is delivered by the chauffeur who drives him to the Pentagon.

Zubkoff estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people read the Early Bird, although only 6,000 copies are printed each morning in the Air Force print shop in the Pentagon's basement.

"We just can't produce any more . . . or we won't," he said.

Zubkoff's publications draw from 65 newspapers, 300 periodicals, numerous trade papers, newsletters, journals and quarterlies.

"Our mission has become incredibly important as the press devotes more and more time and energy to covering national security issues . . . . The volume of material is incredible, it really is, and remember, we're only taking a fraction of the papers," Zubkoff said.

"The Early Bird is one of the best-read newspapers in Washington, and that's really attributed to Mr. Zubkoff's career," said Charles Bailey, chief of the Current News Branch since March 1985. "He's turned it into something unique."

Zubkoff arrives at 7:30 and critiques the day's Early Bird.

He spends several hours a day plowing through magazines and newsletters -- reading, scrutinizing, choosing items suitable for Current News publication or the files for research. Recently, he has worked about 10 hours a day; he used to work more.

"There are so many things I'm now in the habit of reading that I really cannot relish the prospect of giving them up . . . . I'll probably wind up spending $1,000 a year on subscriptions," he said.

Zubkoff's zest for the job is infectious, according to staff members.

"Everything we do is exciting and up to the minute," said Deputy Chief of Current News Cris Schall, who works the 2-to-10 a.m. production shift and said she sleeps just three or four hours a day.

"You eat and breathe it. I will cancel plans so I don't miss the evening news. I turn my radio on as soon as I get in the car."

Culling clippings for the Early Bird demands a finely tuned sense of what constitutes news for the Defense Department and where it is covered best, Zubkoff said.

"There is a very high order of judgment and selectivity involved," he said. "You try to pick the one or two [articles] that cover the topic most thoroughly."

Zubkoff does not like mistakes, several staff members said, and he does not make many.

An error in the Early Bird -- a Wall Street Journal article attributed to the New York Times, an inaccurate date -- usually prompts irate telephone calls from readers and reporters.

"He is very serious about it," said Schall. "He does not tolerate many mistakes. When I make one, I put it on his desk and circle it before he comes in."

Colleagues say they will miss Zubkoff's experience, his seriousness about the work and his wry sense of humor that tempers the daily frenzy.

In Zubkoff's office, in addition to the Pink Panther, are a Pet Rock, a tiny stuffed koala clinging to a mug handle and a chunk of sponge painted to look like granite. Above his desk is a sign: "The only way out is through."

Zubkoff's aim as a manager, he said, "is, ultimately, to get [the staff] thinking the way I think . . . . You try to transmit the quality of judgment that has developed through the years."

"He's a straight shooter," said Bailey. "And he's dead serious about this. I think Mr. Zubkoff bends over backwards to impress upon his staff how serious this all is."

Zubkoff, who went to the Pentagon after a stint in the Army, said he has no specific plans for the future, although decades of reading newspapers have fueled his ambition to write.

"I'm sometimes torn. I often have the feeling that not only I, but almost anybody, could have done a better job than some of the reports I read. I have had the desire to be a commentator -- a columnist or a pundit. I do feel I could add something. But I'm not actively seeking a job and I doubt anyone will invite me.

"I might write a book, or two, or three," he said, his eyes and mouth crinkling in a smile. "I really have not decided on anything . . . . I'll be 65 in June. I could stay here forever, probably, but I want to do other things."