Tom Ridge

Excerpts from a Monitor breakfast on homeland security.

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.

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:

"It has caused us to look at the grid in a couple of different ways. One, from the cyber side - I mean, we are working with, obviously, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies to take a look at the cyber infrastructure that could be manipulated to effect the same outcome, and we'll be making recommendations as to what additional safeguards ... we could put into that side.

But the entire blackout has caused our Department - I mean, we're taking the lead, but also working with Energy and the private sector, to just take a look at the physical infrastructure of the transmission system generally, and make judgments as to what, where are the critical pieces of that system that need to be protected against not just cyber disruption, but physical disruption as well.

And so we've already done and - with the help of the Energy Reliability Council, and a few other organizations - have done an inventory of the critical infrastructure in the grid that we'll be working with the private sector on enhanced security. Period. And not just in the grid that was affected by the blackout. I mean nationwide.

... we made the very appropriate decision to take a look across the country in what are the critical pieces of the transmission system, to not only a potentially vulnerable cyber attack, but if they were physically destroyed, their impact on the national grid would be of such a significant consequence that we need now to begin - absent any threat - now we should begin to protect them, because of potential catastrophic - in this instance, catastrophic - economic dislocation that would be occasioned by their destruction. And that's exactly what we're doing."

On criticism by state and local officials about trouble getting federal aid to fight terorrism:

"We have right now $4 billion out on the street. The federal government has done everything it needs to do to say to the states and locals, based on the 2003 budget and the supplemental budget, there's about $4 billion. It's out there.

We are just beginning to get in the applications so that we can spend those dollars. So the federal government has done its job. It's now up to the states and the locals, instead of talking about the money they don't - haven't received, [to get] involved in the process of getting the dollars that have been appropriated.

But I could show you the list of states and the list of cities that are eligible to draw down and show you how much they've drawn down. You'd be astonished. So I think what we need to do, and we're trying on a day-to-day basis to work with Homeland Security advisers in some of these communities, is say, 'Okay, we know you didn't get the money. One of the reasons it's so late is the budget process took six months longer. It's here. We want to give it to you.'

So I think the tenor of those complaints will change in a couple months. We're beginning to see some of the communities bought communications equipment, protective gear for some of their firemen. So it's - we've done our job. Now it's up to them to make the formal request."

On international cooperation in the battle on terrorism in the wake of Iraq controversy:

"I believe in spite of the very public disagreement with regard to Iraq within the European Union, particularly with Germany and France and some other countries... - the cooperation with the intelligence communities and the law enforcement communities continues to improve. So there is disagreement publicly about a major international engagement in Iraq, but there remains in my daily conversations with my colleagues in the intelligence community a sense that we are still locked together investigating and interrogating terrorists and sharing information.

On how the government coordinates the anti-terror effort:

"Every day we meet in the Oval Office - when the president's out of town, we get paper briefings - but the president, and the vice president, and the attorney general, and the FBI director, and [National Security Adviser Condoleezza} Rice and a few others, myself, review, in our part of the meeting with the president, threats to the homeland.

Twice a day, the intelligence community - the Department of Homeland Security is a full partner in that effort - through videoconferences, review the threat information from the previous day, or days, review actions taken if some are required because of the threat information, and on a day-to-day basis, we do take a look at the national threat level. Has anything we've received today, or in combination with things we've received over the past couple of days, caused us to think about raising it, or lowering it?

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