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State of Security

November 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Tom Ridge’s announcement today comes as the White House and Congress face stalemate over legislation that would reform the nation’s intelligence agencies. Congress returns for a rare December session next week, but members of the 9/11 Commission and family members of 9/11 victims complained today that terrorists could strike before new protections are put in place. Still, Secretary Ridge said today Americans are safer now than they were when he took office 23 months ago.

For an assessment of that, we turn to Juliette Kayyem, executive director of the national security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

And Frank Cilluffo, vice president for homeland security at George Washington University, where he directs the Homeland Security Policy Institute. He was a special assistant to President Bush for homeland security.

Frank Cilluffo, it seems as if Tom Ridge’s departure today comes at a crossroads in kind of American intelligence policy. What would you say about that?

FRANK CILLUFFO: Well, I think clearly we have to put into perspective and keep in mind that Tom Ridge is a person. He wrote the most important chapter, I think, to a book that’s going to be living and open for quite some time. I think the intelligence legislation on the Hill — it is the lifeblood intelligence on the campaign and war against terrorism.

But I think the Department of Homeland Security’s specific mission is to get closer to the point of sale. One of the unique attributes of the Department of Homeland Security is that its customers are not just those inside Washington, inside the beltway.

But the real challenge is how do you get the right information into the right hands at the right time at the pointy end of the spear, at the men and women who are going to turn victims into patients, with the first responders, with our primary care physicians with our non-traditional armies that are going to play an effort in securing our homeland.

GWEN IFILL: Juliette Kayyem, Tom Ridge was given the task of combining 22 agencies under one umbrella, 180, 000 employees. How would you assess his tenure?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: You know, Tom Ridge had a sort of rough hand at the get-go. The statute that created the Department of Homeland Security brought together all these agencies, but most importantly, it gave him almost no oversight over the terrorism activities of say the Department of Defense or the Justice Department or the CIA, the major players in counter-terrorism. So to a certain extent DHS from the get-go was sort of sidelined from the key players.

Given that, I think Tom Ridge has done a pretty good job. I mean, there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil since he took over, and since 9/11. But I think his failure has been in trying to set priorities for the nation, in particular first responders, about what are the one or two or three most important homeland security initiatives that we have to get done and have to get done soon.

Tom Ridge has tried to be all things to all people. But with a budget deficit, two wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan and, you know, because there has been no successful terrorist attack and we’re sort of sitting pretty now, so to speak, he’s… his predecessor or the successor, excuse me, has got to set priorities about how we’re going to spend the money and how we’re going to spend it well.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cilluffo, I was struck by when Tom Ridge was talking about the fact they had not had to raise the national terror alert level in a year, he knocked on wood when he said that. How did you read that?

FRANK CILLUFFO: Well, you go where the information and the intelligence takes you. And clearly the homeland security advisory system in and of itself is both an art and a science. And it’s going to continue to refine itself. I think of software.

You put software out. It has bugs in it. The customers help improve it and refine it so the next version gets better. And, in so doing, you also can add in new functions for the third and fourth version.

And risk communications is tough. There is no right answer to how you communicate an ambiguous and amorphous threat. Everyone is looking for the when and the where. If we know the when and the where, we really don’t have a communications challenge because we’re going to prevent and preempt incidents.

The challenge is how do you deal with ambiguity; how do you explain and convey threat information and how do you put these pieces of a mosaic together?

GWEN IFILL: But was this job that they gave him, was it too big of a bite for one man, as Juliette Kayyem was suggesting, to bite off and really wrestle to the ground?

FRANK CILLUFFO: Well, I think we did build an airplane mid flight. We put together the greatest merger and acquisition in the federal government’s history, at least since the National Security Act of 1947, while we had a war ongoing, and we have to keep our eye on the ball. So I think expectations need to be put in place.

But I think that Secretary Ridge as an individual has been a phenomenal leader. He’s been a public servant his entire life. I think one of the unique components of the Department is again not looking at the alphabet soup inside Washington alone but making sure you can connect to the people that are on the front lines of this war, and here you have had some major successes. It’s… by no means have we reached our goals and objectives, in part because the goal line moves.

We have to recognize that the threat we’re dealing with is dynamic. It’s amorphous. In fact, they base their actions on our actions. So when we’re succeeding in one area in one way, we’re displacing risk.

One of the points that Juliet raised that I think is significant is when you are looking at how do you prioritize from a budget perspective and marry up that policy planning process, here you have got a dynamic with the executive branch and the legislative branch.

Within DHS, and the Department of Homeland Security, you have got a belly button. You have got an individual that marries up authority with accountability and resources. In the Congress, you’ve got a standing committee. I think you need to have a permanent committee.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about Congress for a moment, Juliette Kayyem. We expected an intelligence bills to have been passed by now. Obviously this has been a disagreement about it in Congress. Is this a big problem for the Department of Homeland security or is this a separate issue?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It’s not really separate. I think it’s a reflection of the Department of Homeland Security and I think its failure to really integrate intelligence-gathering. Let’s take one example, the terror watch list.

Still no comprehensive terror watch list; we have now 40 intelligence fusion centers throughout the government. So while DHS was created, the government itself, all other agencies were creating their own intelligence fusion centers. So you have all these different watch lists.

The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security last month issued a report that said this, my own agency, the Department of Homeland Security, still hasn’t gotten it right. It’s deferring too much to the FBI and the CIA.

So I think when the 9/11 Commission comes along and says, let’s start all over again, let’s create some new entity or some new cabinet member in charge of intelligence, it’s a reflection that the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t been sort of the greatest consumer of intelligence telling the other agencies what we should be in charge of.

So they’re distinct, and yet I think the 9/11 Commission report is clearly a reflection of some of the dissatisfaction with the Department of Homeland Security — I’ll add not through any fault of Tom Ridge.

I think from the get-go the way the statute was written, this was an administration reluctant to have the Department of Homeland Security, and then when it created it, you know, created an agency that didn’t have the kind of machismo, as I might call it, that we would expect of the Department of Homeland Security.

It simply had no ability to tell Rumsfeld, to tell the attorney general, to tell the FBI director what, in fact, they had to do. And Ridge has done the best he can, given his statutory mandate.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Frank Cilluffo about that. Is it the case that Tom Ridge was put in a job which was just … not given the powers to be able to do what his mandate was?

FRANK CILLUFFO: I don’t share that, and defining success is one of the most difficult challenges. How do you disprove a double negative? Obviously we haven’t seen any incidents. We know that it’s rife and ripe with anecdotal data when something goes wrong at an airport or at a border.

Obviously, we know if you have an incident when something has gone wrong. You can’t really celebrate the many successes. They either go unheralded or you don’t necessarily know the effect that you’re deterrent may, in fact, have.

But I think that you can’t look at homeland security, you can’t codify it into a neat little black box that says break glass when something bad happens. It’s inextricably interwoven with our foreign policy, with our military policy, with technology policy, science policy, health policy. So it’s really this cross-cutting issues and how do you marshal and mobilize the nation’s vast resources to meet these objectives?

Within the White House, you’ve got a deputy national security adviser, deputy homeland security adviser for combating terrorism that reports both to the national security adviser and to the homeland security adviser where you see some of that convergence that needs to occur.

But let me just make one point on intelligence. Intelligence is a means to an end. It’s not an end in and of itself. It provides insights for indication and warning of an event. It supports military operations. It supports law enforcement operations. It supports health operations, homeland operations. What we can’t afford to do is break what is now working.

Human intelligence is absolutely crucial to getting into the minds of the adversary and to know when and where an incident could occur. You can’t just push a button or knock on bin Laden’s cave and say, hey, we’re here to join. It’s going to take time. We’re making those strides and succeeding.

GWEN IFILL: Juliette Kayyem, I saw you nodding when he said that this is not something – success is not something that you can necessarily quantify. For most Americans, they want to know, 23 months later after this department was created, am I safer? What do you think?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: I would agree with Frank in one instance, and I think, you know, in some ways we’re having a philosophical debate with no successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil, we must be doing something right.

On the other hand, we all know that the threat is still out there, and we’re sort of at this I think existential dilemma. I think one of the problems that someone like Tom Ridge or anyone who has to succeed him is how do you talk about in a democracy, how do you talk about acceptable losses in the civilian context?

We know how to do it in a military context. We make a decision, do we go into Fallujah or not based on what we’ll gain and the losses we’ll have.

But the truth is, is that, and it sounds very crude, in a civilian context, we’re talking about homeland security in a democracy when we still value our privacy, still value our sense of anonymity, we are gambling.

And I think Tom Ridge knows that. I think that a lot of the priorities or lack thereof at the Department of Homeland Security were based on some notion that maybe enough is enough. And it’s very difficult to talk about.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Juliette Kayyem at Harvard and Crank Cilluffo here at George Washington, thank you both very much.

FRANK CILLUFFO: Thank you.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Thank you.