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Tom Ridge on Homeland Security

Secretary of Homeland Defense; Former Republican Governor (PA)


9/11 reaction: We will find those responsible

[At a press conference on 9/11, I was asked "What should Pennsylvania parents tell their children about the events of today?"

I stood there stone-faced, but my insides were churning. I thought of my own kids, and thousands of other children, who had by then viewed those horrible images from the Twin Towers over and over. Many thoughts and images came to mind. I stood silently in front of the cameras for about fifteen seconds--which in television is almost a lifetime. (Later aides told me that they thought they saw me tear up for the first time.) I responded, finally, more in terms of a dad than as a governor:

"It's pretty difficult to explain to your kids that there are people in the world who would kill innocent men, women, and children and subject them to the enormous terror associated with these events to advance a cause. There's nobody that's claimed, as I understand to date, responsibility for these acts. Whether they do or not, we will find them."

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 10 , Sep 1, 2009

Nobody knew about Al Qaeda or radical Islam until 9/11

[Until 9/11], like most Americans, I was naive and relatively uninformed about terrorism dangers. The bombs that had gone off in the World Trade Center's garage in 1993 and outside the federal building in Oklahoma two years later seemed like aberrations in an otherwise orderly society, not a sign of things to come.

Yet in all my conversations with fellow governors over the years at our semiannual meetings I don't recall a single session devoted to domestic terrorism or to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), radical Islam generally, or Al Qaeda in particular. As we later learned, we were not alone on our ignorance or dismissal of this developing, malignant force. Information that emerged after 9/11 revealed th Central Intelligence Agency had tried to get the threat of imminent terrorism on the agendas of the White House and the FBI, with limited success. Neither the term "Al Qaeda" nor the name bin Laden was widely known until after the 1993 attack.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 7 , Sep 1, 2009

Governors must show up at disaster locations

Part of my new job was to try to calm fears. And yet there was a fine emotional and informational line I knew I had to walk. If I lost the public's trust, the game was over. What could I tell people? Until 9/11, the most likely danger of opening an envelope was a paper cut. Now, it was possibly lethal.

As a governor, I'd had to deal with the results of floods, tornadoes, prison breaks, and terrible accidents. As difficult as that was, there was always a clear way to proceed. Rule number one: Go there, and do what you can to help. Identify with the suffering. There was a finality to other tragedies, but in this case, I wondered, "When will this end?" Moreover, the more I learned about the level of our preparedness as a nation, the more I understood the immense task ahead.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 53 , Sep 1, 2009

Overcome barriers between CIA and FBI

The Patriot Act has been and will continue to be criticized by political and legal observers. However, it included antidotes to interagency conflicts [like the] unimaginable legal barrier between CIA and FBI so that in a post-9/11 environment they could actually talk to one another and share information. The legal authority to talk to one another didn't mean that they WOULD share information with other. The change would not come through legislative mandate, but through patience, persistence, and pushing
Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.245 , Sep 1, 2009

Guantanamo holds theological zealots, not POWs

Guantanamo and all those attendant issues were of great and continuing interest. I had absolutely no reservations about the creation of the camp at Gitmo. These were not POWs in the traditional sense. Those apprehended were not soldiers of a sovereign nation. They were zealots who embraced a theology, not a country.

Several months after the opening of the prison I met with a friend over dinner, an army general, who had been involved in many of the interrogations. "Some of those bastards," he said, "should remain on that rock forever." Others, he disclosed, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are still wrestling with how to distinguish who is and who is not a terrorist. We still argue about the type of due process, if any, and promise to close the prison without any clear plan of how we will deal with those we do identify as terrorists.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.144-145 , Sep 1, 2009

Post-9-11 goal: tell Americans specifics about threats

We needed to create a government office with a public information policy that would be groundbreaking. We would find a way to interpret frightening reports in a way that would motivate a sense of readiness & security without sounding like a horror movie. We would attempt to share as much information as possible. The goal was unprecedented, and the task would prove much more difficult than we realized. Nobody to that point had talked about specific threats to subways, stadiums, or skyscrapers. Just the opposite was true: The doctrine was to tell American citizens nothing specific, because if we reveal anything detailed, we would fuel fears that cripple freedom of movement and commerce.

One of our key tasks would be to offer particulars and do it in such a way that they would contribute to a better understanding of what potential threats there might be and, we hoped, to an ever increasing confidence in the government's efforts to thwart them.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 73 , Sep 1, 2009

Duct Tape Debacle: public mocked our "Ready Campaign"

The first incident was the Duct Tape Debacle in late 2001.

We decided to encourage people to be prepared for an emergency by having valuable, even lifesaving supplies at home. Our "Ready Campaign": we suggested three days' worth of food and water, a battery-operated radio, medical and emergency supplies, and home protection materials intended to seal off threats from atmospheric poisons. These materials included plastic sheeting and duct tape, to be stored in a "safe room."

The campaign had some unanticipated results: One was that there was a general run on duct tape and plastic sheeting in hardware and home supply stores.

Finally, duct tape became a metaphor and punch line for late-night comedians. Duct tape in an age of potential nuclear holocaust? Duct tape is a symbol of the Bush administration's nickel-and-diming of homeland security? Duct tape as Tom Ridge taking a great threat and reducing it to a home do-it-yourself project?

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 80-81 , Sep 1, 2009

Threat advisory system: not politically told "Go to orange"

I was convinced that if we were ever found to be playing politics in homeland security, we would lose the trust of the public and undermine our reason for being.

In spite of allegations of playing politics, as time went on, our office was more often than not the most reluctant to raise the threat level. Despite perception to the contrary, the White House couldn't, as a matter of course, call us up and say, "Go to orange, Tom." First, we would never have done so regardless of where the order originated. There would have been mass resignations, and no change in the threat level.

Let me make it very clear. I was never directed to do so no matter how many analysts, pundits, or critics say so. Secondly, the threat advisory system approved in 2002 created a system that included cabinet members whose consensus drove the recommendation. No one, not even the president, can unilaterally alter the threat level.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.114 , Sep 1, 2009

2001: Nation was not equipped to deal with bioterrorism

In the days before I or anyone else in public office knew that anthrax had been employed as a weapon, health officials made the case that the nation needed new vaccines, a stronger public health infrastructure, and doctors who were better trained to respond to bioterrorism attacks. In the late 1990s secretary of defense William Cohen brought a bag of brown sugar to the ABC "This Week" television show. Holding it up for the camera and pointing to it, he said, "The next threat to America will look lik this--and it will be anthrax." It indicated if anthrax is the new weapon, who is the new enemy, and how are we prepared to defend against it?

After 9/11, bioterrorism became a subject of widespread speculation and concern. A survey of health officials indicated the nation was not equipped to deal with terrorist attacks using biological weapons. The big problem, one official said, was "lack of basic public health infrastructure and preparedness that could thwart a terror attack of limit its effects."

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 39 , Sep 1, 2009

Reinterpreting FISA secretly seems like unauthorized power

The 1978 FISA legislation was static, but the new surveillance technology was dynamic. In time, it became clear that the President had authorized the National Security Agency to exercise its authority without applying for the requisite warrants. The administration, in carrying out its own legal interpretation and keeping it a secret, [had] the long-term effect presented an appearance of employing unauthorized power.

The 4th Amendment to the Constitution is unambiguous. Under no circumstance can we voluntarily surrender a constitutionally protected right.

After I left the administration, the White House inquired if I could publicly support the President's use of FISA. I said I could and would but felt it was imperative the White House work with Congress to amend the FISA statute to comport with the new electronic means of surveillance and the original congressional intent. At that point they lost interest in having this discussion. I never got a call to defend their use of FISA.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.110-111 , Sep 1, 2009

We will never celebrate a Victory over Terrorism Day

As we learn about the enemy, we must be prepared to change our approach and tactics to defeat it.The risk is ever present. It must be managed. It cannot be eliminated. The question for our leaders, our policy makers, and ourselves is "How much security is enough?" At what point does the financial or philosophical cost exceed our willingness or ability to pay for it? Risk management involves making choices--trade-offs.
Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.270-271 , Sep 1, 2009

No Orwellian oppression, but inconveniences are ok

Nobody [in DHS] was interested at all in turning George Orwell's oppressive vision into reality. In my view, we had the perfect right in a time of war to introduce measures of inconvenience. It's annoying to have to take off your shoes at the airport and to wait in long lines. But our measures were far less restrictive than those implemented in earlier times of crisis in America. We knew, in time, that Americans would adjust to them and produce picture IDs when buying Amtrak tickets and understand the need. But I would trade inconvenience for loss of freedom any day, and I believe most Americans would as well.

On the domestic front, we didn't want neighbors to spy on each other, or patriots to turn into vigilantes. It wasn't our intention to fill citizens with unnecessary worry. We simply wanted people to become more aware of what was happening around them, to be on the lookout for anything that didn't look right.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.148 , Sep 1, 2009

OpEd: Diverted attention to terrorism for political gain

On Sunday, August 1, 2004, I provided the words the White House wanted: "But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror." Little did I realize that one phras in that paragraph would become press fodder for weeks and make me a target for media criticism that I must admit was justified.

In almost any other situation in government or anywhere else, praising the boss would not be an issue. But in this case, citing "the result of the president's leadership" was loaded with political implication, and this was not lost on our critics. John Kerry had just been nominated for president at the Democratic Party convention. Our announcement, as delivered with the loaded words, was seen by some as a way to divert attention from that event and to reinforce in the minds of Americans that--even as Democrats enjoyed their hour upon the political stage--only the Republican incumbent could keep America safe.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.233-234 , Sep 1, 2009

Deal with terrorism as a joint federal-state responsibility.

Ridge adopted the National Governors Association policy:

Source: NGA policy HR-10: Domestic Terrorism 01-NGA5 on Feb 15, 2001

Include states in anti-terrorism planning.

Ridge adopted the National Governors Association position paper:

The Issue

The issue of terrorism will be of major focus for the 107th Congress. Governors have a critical interest in controlling domestic terrorism because they are responsible for ensuring that state and local authorities have the ability to deal with natural disasters and other types of major emergencies, including terrorist incidents.

NGAís Position

NGA believes that any national strategy for dealing with terrorist incidents should include planning and training by state and local forces. The unique nature of terrorism coupled with national security implications requires the support and expertise of the federal government in working with state and local government in developing capabilities. A clear national strategy developed through a partnership among federal agencies and key state, local, and private sector stakeholders is essential to drive operational and programmatic planning, training, and service delivery in combating terrorism.
Source: National Governors Association "Issues / Positions" 01-NGA7 on Sep 14, 2001

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Page last updated: Jul 12, 2013