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Tom Ridge

Excerpts from a Monitor breakfast on homeland security.

By David T. Cook / September 15, 2003

Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge has lived the American dream. He grew up in veterans' public housing and went on to win a scholarship to Harvard.

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After Harvard, he started law school and then was drafted into the Army where he won a bronze star for heroism in Vietnam.

When his tour with Uncle Sam was over, he finished law school and became an assistant district attorney in Erie County, Pennsylvania. And 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.

In January of this year, he took on one of the toughest jobs in the country, becoming the first person to head the Homeland Security Department.

Here are excepts of what he said at a Monitor breakfast Friday. The session was transcribed by the Homeland Security Department.

On revamping the standards used for color coded threat warnings:

"Let's flash back about a year and a half when some of you would come to those meetings and there would be Attorney General Ashcroft and Director Bob Mueller and yours truly saying, 'Be vigilant, be aware, be careful. We think the threat has been elevated.'

And everybody would write, 'Be vigilant, be aware, be careful. The threat's elevated. Okay, now what are we supposed to do?'

And everybody said, 'What a horrible system this is. You've got to do something with this.'

So we went back and took a look at what State does and Defense does in terms of alerting people as to what not only the threat is, but also tied to each color is a level of protection that you want either your embassies or your forces to undertake.

We now have a very good system. It is a system designed to alert the general public, but [also] direct security professionals that they need to do additional measures to protect their families and communities. We now have a system - remember, we're a federal government, we can't mandate the system. We use it in the federal government. All states and territories have adopted it. Much of the business community is beginning to adopt it.

So, today, we can give a warning. We also give more specific information as to the nature of the threat, and we can send out and do send out an action plan; this is the warning, this is the nature of the threat, these are the things that we expect you to do.

... the fact is that our level of security at yellow today is better than it was a year ago, and our level of security at yellow today will be better a year from now. So the threshold to go from yellow to orange will be higher. That does make a difference.

On long-term nature of the terrorist threat:

"...we know we're in this for the long haul, because I do believe that there will be a successor to Al Qaeda and there will be a successor to bin Laden. We know that there are literally thousands and thousands of extremists out there. We know there are several dozen terrorist organizations. That's the environment within which we live. We need to view it as a permanent part of the hostile environment within which we operate. That's the reason for the permanent reorganization [leading to the Homeland Security Department]."

On whether the threat level will ever decrease:

"...I have faith in the system that we're constructing, faith in the military, faith in an ever growing global commitment among freedom-loving nations around the world who view this as the scourge that may be primarily directed at the United States, but the consequences are felt across the globe. [There] will [be] a day when the announcement will be from some secretary of the Department of Homeland Security that the threat level went down rather than up."

On why there have been no terrorist attacks in the US in two years:

"I think they [terrorists have] got Plan B, C, D, and M. I just do think that [another attack] is a matter of inevitability.

I do think part of it has to do with the military success; part of it has to do with much more robust and comprehensive engagement of the global community. You know, they've got over 3,000 terrorists detained around the world... - interrogating them and getting information on a regular basis. We've made it more difficult for them to access [funds] - I think the president mentioned the other day over a thousand accounts that we had identified were being used to support terrorist activity. A lot of it has to do with the improved security here.

On a review of terrorist threats to the power grid: