TOPICS > Politics

Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge

May 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Governor, welcome.

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Jim, nice to be back.

JIM LEHRER: What can you add to what Ari Fleischer said, we just saw in the News Summary on this anthrax finding at the Fed?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, actually we had a conversation about that a couple of hours ago. There are a minimal number of spores; the origin of course is unknown. Obviously, additional tests will be conducted to determine whether it’s a downstream perhaps from the post office in the distribution center where we had the earlier more significant problems, but right now they’re just conducting quite a few tests and we’ll make a decision based on whether or not they need to do anything else. Right now it seems to be a very, very limited number of spores and no need for anyone to be concerned about their health.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody is in danger, nobody was put in danger as a result of that?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Based on what we understand but again we’ve learned a lot doing the earlier anthrax crisis so we have much more aggressive testing and much more aggressive follow-up. And if there is the slightest hint that there is a potential health problem, then we move in immediately with antibiotics and treat those who have been exposed to that mail.

JIM LEHRER: It hasn’t been ruled out, has it, that this is a new batch of anthrax? Is it likely to have been a new batch or just part of the old that just now suddenly turned up in the machines?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: There has been no analysis to determine whether it’s part of the old batch or new batch. And I think it would be foolish for me to conjecture. My sense is, is that with a limited number of spores there is a good possibility it may be related to an old batch. But it would be really inappropriate for me to draw a final conclusion until all the tests are conducted and all the results are known.

JIM LEHRER: What is the state of the investigation about the old batch?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, we talk to FBI Director Bob Mueller about this just about every day and he continues to have several hundred people working along with the postal authorities and working along with state and local police, but they have also undertaken at different labs around this country a series of very complex tests on the spores themselves with the hope that the more they find out about the anthrax spores that there maybe some evidence or some conclusions they can draw about the individuals involved or where the tests – or where the anthrax was made.

So, again, they’re pursuing human intelligence on a day-to-day basis, but there is a group of very complex tests, scientific tests that are being conducted. Hopefully one of these days there will be an intersection of information gained by both that will enable us to find the perpetrator or perpetrators.

JIM LEHRER: We talked about this when you were on our program a few, several weeks ago now, and the, the puzzlement over why it’s so difficult to locate this — I mean this guy, whoever these people were sent the letters to the U.S. mails to several prominent people, all that sort of thing, and the assumption was at the beginning, well, this will be an easy one to solve. Why has it been so difficult?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: I think reflects, first of all, the openness of our system. We think we have an idea obviously where the letters were deposited but literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people on a daily basis use these post offices or mailboxes. And this individual was very careful not to leave any signature that — in terms of fingerprint evidence or the like to enable the FBI to draw down more completely and a lot sooner on potential perpetrators.

So it’s been a very complex investigation from the get-go. The FBI has devoted hundreds of agents and millions of dollars. It’s one of the most aggressive ongoing investigations that they have ever conducted, and hopefully, that coupled with scientific tests — but it’s a complex puzzle; they’re doing everything they can. I’m convinced they’ll get to the bottom of it but it’s a tough one.

JIM LEHRER: Are they close at all?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: I can’t tell you we’re any closer today than we were yesterday. But then again I don’t know what they learned today with regard to the tests; they have the leads that they’ve been following. And they’ve been led down a lot of blind alleys but they’re pursuing every conceivable lead.

JIM LEHRER: Now, are you kept abreast of all of these investigations -

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Oh, yes.

JIM LEHRER: — on a regular basis?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Oh, absolutely. And one of the opportunities and responsibilities I have is from time to time to just sit down with those conducting the investigations to get a full and complete status report as to where they are. Of course the president stays very much involved and very informed on these things as well.

JIM LEHRER: Now, there was another homeland security issue this week, and those were the pipe bombs in Texas and the Midwest. What… was your office involved in that?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Oh, yes. It was interesting we just opened up a coordination center on Nebraska Avenue so we can connect the federal government with…

JIM LEHRER: Nebraska Avenue here in Washington?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Yes. We connect our office to the state and local governments and ultimately to many places around this country. But our… the homeland security adviser for that state was in contact with our office almost immediately. The FBI was on top of it immediately.

Now, here’s an instance where the individual did leave tracks in the sand and they were able to follow a bit of trail. It showed great cooperation between the FBI, the state police, the local police and they managed to apprehend him rather quickly.

JIM LEHRER: Who makes the decision to call Tom Ridge? When does the Homeland Security Office involved in these kinds of things, somebody fines a pipe bomb, somebody finds anthrax, how does that work?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: It’s really interesting; it’s a wonderful question to ask because the president directed our office to develop a national strategy, which means that he hoped that we could develop a plan and work with not only federal agencies but state and local agencies and almost simultaneously in this instance the Homeland Security adviser from the state gave us a call, the FBI gave us a call, so we received information very quickly from a variety of sources and were able to monitor it throughout the entire investigation.

JIM LEHRER: And yet I read that when the decision was made to end military surveillance flights over New York recently, you all were not consulted at all, your office wasn’t even told about it until after the decision was made, is that correct?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, initially there had been reports that the Pentagon, the Department of Defense had made an internal decision and that was somehow linked and somebody got a hold of that. We were working on the same issue within the Homeland Security Office, and as things are normally arranged we got together with the secretary of defense and others responsible for the decision and reached agreement and as to what we would do regarding the air space in the corridor from New York to Washington.

JIM LEHRER: A Defense Department official was quoted in The New York Times saying, quote, we don’t tell the Office of Homeland Security about recommendations, only about decisions. End quote. Is that true about all of the federal agents?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: I think that’s an unfortunate characterization because the secretary of defense and I have had some wonderful conversations about the relationship between the office. We have continued conversations about how the new unified command plan, where they’re going to have a North American Command, will work with the Office of Homeland Security. So that may have been his version but I would say that the collaboration has been pretty good so far.

JIM LEHRER: When the announcement was made about a terrorist attack against banks recently, the announcement was made by the attorney general, not by Tom Ridge, is that the way it’s supposed to be?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Yes. As a matter of fact after both the attorney general and I made similar announcements not quite with the same kind of specific information attached to them last fall and early winter, we worked with the Homeland Security Council, which are the principles of major departments in government, and developed a national threat advisory system.

You remember, you’ve probably seen, it’s a five color-coded system and we’re hoping that’s one half the program. The other half of the system is that the public sector and the private sector will develop precautionary measures, protective measures consistent with the level of threat.

But in addition to making that recommendation to the president that we adopt that, we also recommended that the attorney general be responsible in the future, so that there is focal point for making those kinds of announcements, so it was very appropriate for the attorney general consistent with the recommendation that the Homeland Security Council — not our office but the Council made to the president.

JIM LEHRER: As you know some members of Congress, and the Brookings Institution study and some others have suggested that your office, whether you had the job or not, should be elevated to cabinet level so you are more involved not just as one of the informants, not just as a coordinator but one of the decision makers. Do you think that’s right, after several months now on the job, do you need to be a cabinet officer?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, first of all I think our office has been very much involved in a lot of the decision-making relative to homeland security issues. But one of the things that the president told the Congress – and I have reiterated his message over the past seven or eight months — because these ideas were vetted shortly after I was sworn in — the president asked and I’ve asked him to give us some time, as we take a look at our office and we take a look at the executive branch, and I have said to them based on what we conclude is necessary for a national strategy, there may be a reorganization of the Executive Branch recommended. I mean, we’re reviewing all options now.

But even if we would consolidate some of these many, many agencies over which homeland security would have some jurisdiction and some interaction, a president would still need an adviser because even if you had a new agency, you would still have the Attorney General’s Office you’re working with, you would still have the Department of Defense, you would still have Tommy Thompson at Health and Human Services.

So whether or not Congress proceed unilaterally or based on a recommendation that we might make to strengthen and create a cabinet office, you would still need a homeland security adviser.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re comfortable being an adviser now, not an implementer, not a cabinet office who has got a big team and turns around and orders people to do things?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well I’m comfortable with the job the president has assigned me to do. And the job was very specific. It was to design and then coordinate the implementation of a national security strategy and we’re in the process of doing now – and some parts of the strategy have emerged in the president’s budget with bio defense and help our first responders, and the police and the firemen, and the EMT, and the border initiatives that we’ve undertaken; the national advisory is part of that strategy; working on cyber and physical infrastructure in the private sector as part of that strategy, but long term there could be and again we have told everybody we’re working on it now.

I personally think that you take a look at different functions of the government, there could be a re-organizational effort to bring it into the 21st century, if we believe this is an enduring vulnerability, and I do it is – and whatever the president decides after that is up to the president. But I’m comfortable being a special assistant to the president and director of homeland security.

JIM LEHRER: You’re working on these recommendations?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Correct.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re supposed to have them to the president by midsummer sometime?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, I volunteered publicly to the president that we could get a blueprint for future action to him by midyear on or about July 1 and we’re still aiming to make that commitment to the president.

JIM LEHRER: Let me read you a quote from The New York Times a few days ago. It said, quote, instead of becoming the preeminent leader of domestic security Tom Ridge has become a White House adviser with a shrinking mandate, forbidden by the president to testify before Congress to explain his strategy, overruled in White House councils and overshadowed by powerful cabinet members reluctant to cede or share their limelight, end quote. True or false?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Well, I think it’s false. I just don’t think they have spent enough time with me on a day-to-day basis. We have accomplished a great deal, have a tremendous opportunity to have impact on the decision making process, worked in collaboration with agencies, working with the EPA and the chemical industry, working with Tommy Thompson on dealing with potential bioterrorism threats, right now an emphasis on small pox and getting vaccines and preparing a distribution plan.

Working with the technology community on cyber security and then working with a broadest section, we have met with a couple hundred trade associations and companies talking about physical infrastructure, developing best practices of being prepared to offer some plans to deal with that, so on a day-to-day basis we’re not only advising and counseling and coordinating, we’re helping drive decision making. I think it’s an inappropriate characterization of what we do and what we have done. But they don’t spend every day of the hour with me.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking in terms of what you have done, what you would say tonight the status of our homeland security is post September 11, are we in better shape, are we safer?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Across the board, I mean across the board if you’re concerned about bioterrorism defense, we learned a lot of tough and difficult lessons with anthrax but the pharmaceutical companies engaged, NIH is engaged, the Center for Disease Control is engaged; we’ve been concerned about border since 9/11. There have been changes, I think the Congress with its bill, border bill, some meaningful reform, we’re going to start having biometrics on visas.

The president has said we need to develop an entry and exit monitoring system. We’re working on border accords with our friends in Canada and Mexico. You go across the board to working with first responders, and you’ve got 50 states and territories that now have homeland security advisers; you’ve got Dick Clark working across the board both with public and private sector cyber security.

So just about everywhere you look we have pushed forward very aggressively. That’s not to say we still don’t have more work to do. But I think we’ve made a lot of success. This is a multi-year plan and we will get it done, I’m confident of that.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the alert system. What level of alert are we on now?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: We have been and still are at the third level, and the color code, it’s yellow, but it’s an elevated level of risk, and what we have said with this, and the national system was really embraced by the law enforcement community, I mean, they helped us write it.

It was embraced by the 50 plus homeland security advisers because we all think we need a vocabulary, a standard vocabulary that says to the country what level of risk we’re at, but also within the same matrix if we get credible, corroborated information that say a particular site, a particular company, a particular venue, it may be under greater stress, under greater risk, then there is enough flexibility to go back to them and say you’d better adopt even more protective measures because we have pretty serious, pretty credible information that you may be a target of an attack. I think the system is working very well.

JIM LEHRER: Has the situation in the Middle East enhanced or is there anything new as a result of what’s going on in the Middle East?

GOV. TOM RIDGE: You know, unfortunately we watch the death and the destruction and terror over there but that has – we are at still a pretty substantial – we’re at an elevated level of risk and nothing over there has given us reason to modify that.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Ridge, thank you very much.

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Nice to be with you again. Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.