Monitor Breakfast: Tom Ridge

Selected quotations from a Monitor Breakfast with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge

Tom Ridge's life story reads like an advertisement for the American dream–at least until he landed his current job coordinating the work of 46 federal agencies involved in homeland security without having a Cabinet department to call his own.

If coordinating the federal effort were not enough, there are also the more-than 1,200 anti-terrorism bills states have drafted since Sept. 11.

Mr. Ridge grew up in public housing and won a scholarship to Harvard University.

After Harvard, he started law school and then was drafted into the Army where he won a bronze star for heroism. After his service in Vietnam, he finished law school and became an assistant district attorney. In 1982, he was elected to Congress, becoming the first Vietnam vet to serve there.

When President Bush named him homeland security director, Mr. Ridge was serving as governor of Pennsylvania, a post to which he had been twice elected.

On the effectiveness of random passenger checks at airports:

I don't think random checks enhance security very much at airports. As part of an overall mix, it may not be a bad idea. But I think we have to bring the same kind of attention to people at our airports as we do to trying to identify weapons.

One of the suggestions we have–for want of a better word–is identifying no-risk or low-risk passengers. I have paid (when I was a frequent traveler) an annual fee to an airline to get access to coffee and a stale Danish as I waited for a connection. I think people would pay, share that information about themselves. You can double check it and you can make a rational, responsible assessment based on the likelihood of these people being terrorists. I think you have to combine not just looking for weapons and explosives. I think we ought to integrate that technology and direct technology toward people you think are high-risk or moderate-risk folks.

Same thing at the border. If you have companies that sign up for the customs/terrorism partnership, those trucks and those people will come through the fast lanes so your personnel and technology can be focused on the people and the cargo you don't know. The people who sign up on the border with fingerprint identification–Canada has checked them out, we have checked them out, they are citizens, they have been there for 15 or 20 years, they go back and forth every day, why shouldn't they go through so you can focus your people and your technology on the other side dealing with the vehicles and individuals and cargo you don't know."

On unfinished homeland defense work:

"I don't believe we are where we want or need to be in just about any area of homeland security.

.... I mean the bottom line is that since 9-11 that this country has moved on parallel paths – not just the federal government but other levels of government and the private sector. I think you can point to just about every sector of the economy, every state, every community where they are thinking and acting differently and are better prepared to deal with potential attacks, certainly in a much better position having assessed the potential vulnerabilities.

We are across the board certainly better prepared but not by any means where we want or need to be a couple of years down the road. We cannot ever be 100 percent secure against 100 percent of the possibilities 100 percent of the time if we are to remain a free and open country. And obviously we are not gong to change that quality of America.

But I don't lie awake at night. Frankly and candidly, I am very reassured by the kind of work and progress I have personally witness as I have traveled around the country seeing what people, organizations, other levels of government, the private sector have been doing since 9-11. We still have substantial work to do but a lot of progress has been made."

On US vulnerability to suicide bombers seen recently in the Middle East:

"The best homeland security is push your perimeter as far away as you can from the homeland. That means try to identify and restrain or eliminate your enemy before they set foot into this country.

Having said that, we obviously still have a lot of work to do because of how we have conducted business in the past because we have been open. We have not had a tracking system for those to whom we would extend visas. We haven't exchanged passenger information on cargo ships and airplanes coming in, we haven't had the kind of smart-border agreements that we are working now with Canada and Mexico to design.

... I would say that amid the horrible lessons that we have observed in the Middle East during the past couple of weeks, not the least of which is the murder bomber – being probably the most difficult form of terrorism to detect – that our risk assessment today isn't any different than it was on 9-11. There is always that possibility in this country.

...There is an enduring vulnerability in this country in the 21st century world. We can't make any mistake about it. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we will be vulnerable to terrorist attack. Our size, our diversity, our openness, our borders. So as we accept that enduring vulnerability, we can try to dramatically minimize the risk to the lowest possible dimension we can."

On whether he has a home evacuation plan:

"Frankly, if you saw where we were living in Harrisburg, you would know we wouldn't need much of an evacuation plan, you would be tripping over three labs on your way out the door and that would be about it."

On whether he has a safe room at his house:

"No.

... Dealing with community evacuation plans even down to individual residence evacuation plans is something that hopefully down the road we will design and take it for granted that if something happens this is what we do as a family, this is what we do as a community. It is very much a part of the longer-term strategy."

On whether national ID cards are inevitable:

"There is absolutely no discussion in the Office of Homeland Security or any place else in the administration that I know of with regard to a national ID card. Before we ask citizens of this country, before we take that approach involving our citizens, we ought to take that approach to those who are non-citizens.

If you are a guest of this country, you ought to have an ID card. Some would argue that a [driver's license] is an ID card even though the authorization, the tenure, and the qualifications may vary from state to state.

I think we ought to harmonize that process so that guests who might otherwise be eligible also are noted on that driver's license as guests. My judgment is you take that kind of action and direct it toward your guests and those who get visas but not toward citizens of the United States."

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