TOPICS > Politics

The State of Security

February 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The Department of Homeland Security was officially created last March 1, with the merger of 22 federal agencies and their 180,000 employees. The department’s mission — to prevent any future terrorist attack, and make sure the U.S. is ready to respond if one does occur.

We get an assessment of the past year and the challenges still ahead, now, from the secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge. And welcome, Mr. Secretary.

TOM RIDGE: Nice to be back, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You gave a speech this morning in which you talked about the accomplishments of your department. What would you say, if you could tick off two or three, that made America measurably safer just in the year since the Department’s been created?

TOM RIDGE: Right off the bat, more and better information sharing, not just across the federal level, but down to our state and local partners and into the private sector. I think that’s a key. More people, better technology at our airports, seaports or land ports where we’ve been able to enhance security but keep moving commerce across our shores. And there’s a series of internal things that we’ve been able to get done I think to better organize and build new abilities to prevent a terrorist attack or respond to one if it occurs.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s take a couple of those. Let’s take airlines. I think the thing that’s been in the news most lately are these cancellations of flights. And when the last one was canceled just ten days ago, the spokesman for your department said, “it’s going to be part of our normalized process.” Is this going to be part of the new normal?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think a couple of things. One, we need to understand that before Sept. 11 we hardly had any security at all, just somebody to make a casual reference if you’ve been carrying your own suitcase forever. And now from the curbside to the cockpit we have far more technology involved, far more better-trained people involved, hardened cockpit doors, federal air marshals, and the like.

The fact of the matter is, is that every single day there are dozens and dozens of airplanes canceled because of mechanical problems or weather. They’re canceled because of safety reasons. On those occasions it was a collective decision that the best thing we could do, which is always the last resort for safety reasons, is to cancel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Air cargo… I mean, cargo in general.

TOM RIDGE: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: Last December 31, I gather there was a deadline in which all ports, ships, ferry terminals were all supposed to submit their plans to your department of how they were going to prevent terrorist attacks. And something like 80 percent of the ports failed to meet the deadline, and 50 percent of the ships. Now, why was that?

TOM RIDGE: Well, first of all, you literally have hundred and hundreds of ports and thousands and thousands of ships. But the Coast Guard, pursuant to the legislation and direction the Congress gave us, number one, at the major ports of entry. Because we have a captain of the port, they have been doing these internal surveys about port security for a long time since a question of formalizing it.

Again, getting arms around thousands and thousands and thousands of vessels is going to take us a little more time. But again, it’s a matter of managing the risk, not reducing it, and using particularly the extraordinary people we have at the Coastguard to make an assessment and then give direction so that they add security measures to their ports and their vessels.

MARGARET WARNER: But now I gather that by July 1 the Coast Guard is empowered, and is supposed to start stopping ships who haven’t…

TOM RIDGE: They have.

MARGARET WARNER: And will that deadline be met?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I believe they can. They will have the ability to take the appropriate action for, against ports and particularly ships that do not comply with the regulations. But the bottom line is, is that every single day the Coast Guard is involved in a variety of measures to help secure these ports and make them 40,000 over flights, the captains of the ports have built their security plans. And this is the year we’ll probably get to engage the private sector as to how they help us, not only with their determination, but also with some of their dollars to provide some of the security at these ports.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so what percent of the cargo coming into this country now by ship is inspected, either at the port of departure or here?

TOM RIDGE: We begin our inspection process at about 98 percent of the containers that are shipped into the United States begin a preliminary inspection process before the container is even loaded on the ship.

We build up an incredible database because of the Coast Guard’s experience and customs experience. We match the manifest against information we know.

It’s a rules-based system, and if you don’t meet a certain threshold, we keep the container out and run it through non-intrusive inspection technology, and if we don’t like what we see, we open it up and check it ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, another thing the public knows a lot about — the color-coded system. It’s been much maligned, as you know.

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Chris Cox is head of the homeland security, the committee, on the House side, is saying it really is time to dramatically change it. Local governments are complaining they spend millions of dollars — they don’t really know what they’re supposed to do, except put extra people in overtime. Why even issue these alerts to the public?

TOM RIDGE: Well, first of all, Chris has been very, very supportive of the Department. He and I happen to have a difference of opinion on this. I think it’s a good system, and we are refining it and making it better. Admittedly, it is a blunt instrument.

But by the time we get done with this department and developing a national infrastructure database and a homeland security information exchange information network, I think we’ll be less inclined to raise the national alert. It will be much more surgical and much more targeting in our approach.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is what he had suggested.

TOM RIDGE: So we don’t have to put the whole country on alert. But until we’ve had a chance to review the infrastructure– 85 percent of it is viewed and owned by the private sector– until we have a chance to assess who’s done what to add security, we can’t do that. But in time it will be a higher threshold to go from where we are now to the next level.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, for instance, have you ever had an instance in which during a time of heightened alert a member of the public came forward with information that thwarted an attack?

TOM RIDGE: No, but we have on a fairly regular basis have had citizens who have asked to be vigilant, if there’s something in the neighborhood, something occurred in their place of business that led us to an investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: But related to a color-coded alert, or just in general?

TOM RIDGE: No, just in general. But the fact of the matter is, again it is a warning to the general public– actually, it’s a declaration to America that the president’s Homeland Security Council, and that’s about half of his cabinet, have looked at the intelligence and said, we see the threats of an attack, and it is higher. So, it’s like, we’re going to give you notice, but just keep doing what you’re doing. But for the security professionals and law enforcement, they know exactly what they need to do when we go up to another level.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you talked when you were ticking off the big achievements about greater information and intelligence sharing.

TOM RIDGE: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, your own inspector general had a recent report saying, complaining about the fact that– for instance, just let’s take intelligence from abroad, real intelligence– that though HS was supposed to be the central part of this — that in fact now it’s being run by the FBI and the CIA and that in his words he said that it makes it difficult.

He said, “Insuring that the DHS has access to the intelligence it needs to prevent and/or respond to terrorist threats is under such circumstances an even harder challenge than it otherwise would be.”

TOM RIDGE: Well, his conclusion is contrary to our day-to-day experience — of course he’s not involved in that. We have analysts working at the threat integration center — we have people at the terrorist screening center. We can go back to the CIA and FBI and give them requirements.

All right, you gave us this information, but we’d like to ask you these questions or do you have more information on this regard. So again, I think he is not quite as aware as he should be — not saying he’s at fault. But on a day-to-day basis, we interact very very well.

I think one of the strengths to the new department is that we are getting access to more information. We’ve sent 60 or 70 bulletins and advisories down to the state and local police.

We interact with the private sector all the time. So again remember, we’ve only been in operation a year, we’ve still got a long way to go. But it’s a great first, a very positive first step.

MARGARET WARNER: But in other words you are comfortable with essentially having your department be a consumer of the intelligence produced elsewhere?

TOM RIDGE: That’s correct. I mean, I think what the inspector general needs to understand is that we are not empowered to collect independently. What he needs to understand is that we are authorized to go back to the collection agencies, the FBI, the CIA, and others, and ask questions. But I don’t think the American public wants the Department of Homeland Security collecting information.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, finally then, the state and local and again how this chain does or doesn’t work. As you know, there was this other commission, the Gilmore Commission. It said there was still a real problem with fragmentation — that the intelligence that was needed to get down from your department to state and local authorities wasn’t working the way it should, or vice versa.

TOM RIDGE: Well, Governor Gilmore is a great friend of mine, and it was a very sound observation in the sense that that is the goal, that is part of our goal for us this year is to build. We’ve got a small infrastructure to share that information. But by the end of this year, we will have in place a homeland security information network, by phone, by secure video, and by the Internet.

We’re going to get a lot more information down to the state, local, and private sector, and by the same token a lot more information coming up to us. So again, Governor Gilmore looking down the road saying, “What does the country need?” He’s absolutely right and he knows that by the end of this year we’re going to have it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, when you do we’ll have you back. Thank you, Secretary.

TOM RIDGE: I look forward to it. Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.

TOM RIDGE: All right.