In an exclusive Campus Safety interview, former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge provides a high-level view of national security from the federal government down to local school, university and hospital campuses. The ex-Pennsylvania governor discusses his legacy and the future of DHS, as well as how security technology and personnel must work in concert to protect America.
At a time when America was reeling from the attacks of 9/11, one man stepped up to turn what could have been utter chaos into a finely focused effort to guard against future atrocities on U.S. soil. That man was two-term Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who was sworn in as the first Office of Homeland Security advisor by President Bush on Oct. 1, 2001. He was later sworn in as the first secretary of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Jan. 24, 2003.
While with DHS, Ridge was charged with the Herculean task of developing and coordinating a comprehensive national strategy to strengthen protection against terrorist threats or attacks. The ambitious undertaking involved the largest government reorganization in more than 50 years and combined 22 federal agencies with in excess of 170,000 employees.
Ridge — a former lawyer who was elected to Congress in 1982 and was the first enlisted Vietnam combat veteran elected to the U.S. House, where he was overwhelmingly reelected six times — stepped down from his DHS post on Feb. 1 of this year to pursue personal interests. His impressive political and DHS experience make him uniquely qualified to provide inside information about the federal government and national security.
In an exclusive, Campus Safety recently spoke with Ridge. In what he calls the “most extensive interview of his career,” Ridge candidly talks about his legacy and the future of DHS; the realities of terrorism; vulnerability and funding issues in campus environments; and the pursuit of a national ID program.
Now that you have had several months to put things in perspective, how do you feel about your tenure with DHS? What were the successes? What were the failures? What was most frustrating? What would you do differently?
Ridge: I believe the team we assembled and the work we completed created both a very strong national and international foundation for DHS to continue to improve and enhance the safety and security of this country. It is strong, broad and deep, and it is a great platform for future secretaries to build on.
The greatest political fact of life was we partnered successfully with Congress in many different ways, but the number of committees and subcommittees was far in excess of any other agency. That does not allow for the development of strategic relationships with the legislative branch that I believe would be in the best interest of homeland security. Constantly testifying and responding to staff inquiries and briefing Capitol Hill is very time-consuming.
It would better serve the country if, similar to Department of Defense, there would be one primary committee with which we could establish strategic and budget priorities.
Does it trouble you that some have criticized the Homeland Security Advisory System and disaster kits? Do you stand by them?
Ridge: The Advisory System has proven its value the past couple of years. We have not used it nationally in a year-and-a-half. It was designed to be used in almost a surgical way, and the past two times it was used it has demonstrated its versatility.
We needed some means of communicating to the general public and the president’s homeland security group [several select cabinet members] that DHS believed the possibility of attack had increased. It is also a direct, specific signal to security professionals to increase vigilance because of the higher threat. It is a good system and is working well. It will continue to do so as long as we share information with the public.
Some ridiculed the disaster kits, but they are nothing more than what the Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] had urged people to keep in their homes for decades. Those caught up in disasters or weather events can give testimony to the practical use for having a disaster kit at their disposal when they needed it.
Are you surprised nothing major has happened on U.S. soil since 9/11? What do you attribute that to, and are we on borrowed time?
Ridge: I am grateful, not surprised. There can be many reasons that together explain it, and it may be as simple as they have not completed their plans or the time is not quite right. There are also many reasons we could look to in a positive sense, as America has deployed enhanced security features everywhere.
How can we combat those terrorists who are ingrained in the fabric of society, such as the London suicide bombers who lived there their whole lives?
Ridge: The notion that terrorists could be homegrown is not new; look at Timothy McVeigh. We should not operate under any illusion that among our huge population there are not people who subscribe to the ideology of hate and who might actually today be plotting their own terrorist attack. Some might even be U.S. citizens.
The recent London explosions and murders bring it home in a very tragic way. There is greater awareness among the public about the threat of how these terrorists operate, but as we look at the purpose and use of the mass-transit system, it is not possible to completely secure it. People using mass-transit are in a hurry and any significant alteration to it would impact its function.
All you can do is reduce the vulnerability, not eliminate it. There may be some technology in the future that could be deployed at entry points to help detect explosives. In the meantime, you use everything at your disposal and pray for the best.
Where do you believe our country is most vulnerable and what can be done about it?
Ridge: We cannot focus on one single area, as we have to look at many across the board. We have to look at preventing a catastrophic event, which means the greatest challenge is toward the technology of detection to pick up biological agents, nuclear materials, etc. Looking at weapons of mass destruction, we need enhancements in detection.
What about a national ID? What form do you believe it should take, how will it be administered and how long before it is implemented?
Ridge: First, everyone should understand that the legislation Congress used to create the department instructed DHS it could not develop such a card. However, at some point in time, in the near future, since I believe as a country we are evolving in that direction anyhow, we ought to accept the notion that there are many benefits to be derived from being able to authenticate identity.
We ought to sit down and see if we can construct a system that limits access. I cannot tell you what the requirements would be as I am not smart enough technically, but I am optimistic we could come up with a form of identification whose use would be limited and protected. We have people in many private sector industries where they are already issuing such IDs — this is the direction we are heading in anyway.
I believe any ID system today requires multiple biometrics for redundancy. The political climate is not right at the moment, but all the activity is moving in that direction and even those who object may soon change their stance.
What can be done to protect our nation’s schools, universities and hospitals? What has been done so far and how much more needs to be done?
Ridge: As opposed to a lot of other types of buildings and environments, I believe most of the campus institutions had security measures embedded in them prior to 9/11. Certainly after a couple of years of tragic violence in [K-12] schools, there are far more aggressive security measures with police, metal detectors, parental involvement and so on, but probably not to the same extent as at universities and hospitals.
These are environments where you must manage the risk without altering the way people have to operate. I believe the government should put out some standards, but for now they should leave it up to those institutions and just give them some guidance. You certainly don’t want to turn these locations into fortresses. You want to make sure you continue to upgrade surveillance capability and, more importantly, keep the law enforcement professionals well trained and informed.
Do you believe schools, hospitals and universities able to access the funding they need to acquire the security systems and personnel they desperately need?
Ridge: Probably not. There are communities with millions of dollars being funded by government and these institutions should apply for these funds. But these organizations need to look independently of the federal government for security. Terrorism is a new potential threat and is not much different than other violent activity on campus in that it is another vulnerability with which security and law enforcement must deal.
Going forward, there needs to be far less reliance on the federal government funding security and safety in campuses. I don’t believe there is an overwhelming need to enhance the security so much as there is a tremendous necessity to ensure that existing law enforcement is adequately trained and well informed. You may want to have some surveillance cameras and so forth, but we have to be ready to respond based on the new normal.
How important do you believe security systems such as intrusion alarms, CCTV, access control, biometrics, etc. are in securing America? How do they stack up to just increasing security personnel?
Ridge: One of the principles around which we operated within DHS was the notion that we needed, around the country, to integrate both people and technology. Frankly, the application of various forms of technology throughout the country, either by the public or private sector, will help us become more secure and reduce our vulnerability to attack. That includes everything from biometrics through surveillance equipment and other protective security technology.
At the end of the day, I believe it is only through the appropriate integration of people and technology that we will truly maximize our national ability to reduce threat of attack.
Do you believe most government officials in positions that impact the acquisition and deployment of security systems understand their capabilities and value?
Ridge: I certainly hope so. There is a tendency for some officials to look at a vulnerability and say we need more people, and in fact, much of security is labor intensive. But unless technology becomes part of the comprehensive plan to reduce that vulnerability, you have failed miserably to provide the maximum level of protection. Technology is a great enabler.
What do you believe will be the effect of recent reports about wasted money and time spent on unproven technology?
Ridge: DHS had to assess existing technologies, see if there was an immediate application and then look at longer-term investments. There will undoubtedly be research and development [R&D] dollars invested that do not generate a product that has value.
We have certain vulnerabilities and we are trying to reduce the dollars directed, but not all research and dollars will get us where we need to be. But I am quite confident most of the research will pay off.
I believe most people understand when you are looking at technology or medicine, etc., not all dollars will end up with a commercially viable product. So I don’t believe it will chill the notion that R&D is wasteful in the technology arena. We are a country of innovators and entrepreneurs and we have to keep pushing the envelope.
For the complete version of this article, please refer to the November/December 2005 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.