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Newsmaker: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

February 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.

TOM RIDGE: Nice to be back. Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: You announced a new kind of ready plan for Americans today. What’s the crux of the message?

TOM RIDGE: The basic message is that you can’t always predict an attack but you can always prepare for one. And so the terrorists put us in a position where we make a choice, and we can either be afraid or we can be ready. And today we think American families declared we’ll be ready.

JIM LEHRER: What are some of the key specifics? What do you think are the most important things you are now advising Americans to do to get ready?

TOM RIDGE: There are three basic recommendations that we make that we’ve made all along, that have been on Web sites with the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but this is a national multimedia campaign, but have a communication plan with your family, not unlike you might have during other kinds of emergencies.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning just know where they are?

TOM RIDGE: How you can get back in touch with one another. If most households are a little bit like mine, rarely are you under the same roof all at the same time for an extended period of time, so how do you contact one another in the unlikely but possible event something happens to disrupt the family, disrupt the community.

The second is an emergency supply kit, there are a basic list of staples most of which you can pull out of your own cabinet, pull out of the stockpile that you might have in the basement, on the shelves in the kitchen. And the third is just a real message for the adults: Take the time, be informed. And so communication plan, emergency supply kit, be informed, then go about the business of enjoying your family and enjoying America.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go through some of these. The communications plan, what about — some people have mentioned that how is the ordinary American to find out about a terrorist attack, like in the middle of the night or even it could be several blocks away, but if they’re asleep, how do they find out? Is there some kind of system being worked on for that?

TOM RIDGE: Precisely. There are multiple ways that we can communicate the plan; but there are also multiple sets of circumstances under which some of them wouldn’t work. And so obviously television and radio is our first choice. There will be alarm systems that we are working on communities; if the electricity is off, hopefully a battery-powered radio might help. So again as we go about preparing the family, we work with the state and local governments to prepare to deliver the message.

JIM LEHRER: But there is no message delivery system now, correct — …radio and television —

TOM RIDGE: Well, there are multiple systems. We have an emergency weather system; we have an emergency system that the states have. We have national systems but to make sure I think in the years ahead that we have redundant systems so that if the primary system is out we can go to a second or third system is very important for us to develop in the years ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Now the kit that you recommend, does it still have duct tape in it?

TOM RIDGE: You know, that is not something that ever was issued or even uttered by the Department of Homeland Security, and people have taken it, and I think humor is a very effective tool for delivering a message. I’m a little worried about the preoccupation with duct tape.

JIM LEHRER: Kind of ridiculed the whole idea, didn’t it?

TOM RIDGE: It is, but if you talk to emergency personnel and you talk to people who believe that there are certain circumstances, particularly a chemical attack, or maybe in a biological attack, that you may want to have a safe shelter for four or six hours, for a temporary period of time, until perhaps the chemical plume moves on, you may want that shelter; you may need that duct tape, so humor’s a good way to communicate a message. Ridicule is not, and I think we’re close to going over the line because at the end of the day it is one of a list of many, many things in the emergency supply kit that we hope Americans accumulate and then set aside and go about the business of being Americans.

JIM LEHRER: Would you agree with those who say that one of the problems with the duct tape idea was that you all didn’t really put that information out in a very straightforward way, didn’t tell people what they were supposed to do with the duct tape, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, would you take some of the blame for that?

TOM RIDGE: Sure. I mean, I don’t think there’s any question about it, that our ability to send a broader message — we didn’t use — we knew were working this national campaign; we didn’t accelerate it. We wanted to do it right, rather than doing it quickly. But candidly that information about the use of duct tape has been out there for months and months and months. It was the same message we communicated the last time on Sept. 11, the last time we raised the threat level, but instead of recrimination, instead of pointing fingers, I think the important thing is for people to understand there may be occasions you need it, probably won’t. Purchase some of that; get potable water; get the dry goods; get the emergency supplies and a few other things. Include that, and move on. That’s all.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the new thing that you’ve announced today, that’s basically an advertising and public relations campaign, is it not, to get this information out?

TOM RIDGE: Correct. It is a national campaign, but we’ve got fabulous partners — the Sloan Foundation and the Ad Council came together to help us develop the national campaign, and we’ve got the Red Cross going out with brochures tomorrow. They’ve got an extraordinary infrastructure. We’ve got the Salvation Army working with us; you’ve got the United States Postal Service that’s going to help us. You’ve got the Yellow Pages that are going to have that information in over 500 million directories around the country, so again it is a national campaign; there’s the Internet site,

We can’t overload the public with the kind of information they need, but there will be a point where they can go and get all the information they might need, depending on the circumstances that were in play so…

JIM LEHRER: Were you sensitive to the criticism that you all were just saying go to our Web site, it’s all there? Is that what brought on this desire to have this campaign now?

TOM RIDGE: Actually the idea for the campaign and the initial discussion about the kind of campaign began over a year ago, and it’s been a work in progress. We knew we needed partners. And we found some great partners; the organizations that I mentioned before. In the ideal world, had we delivered this a month or six weeks or three months ago, maybe some of the flap and some of the hyperbole and ridicule around the duct tape would have been avoided, but you couldn’t push the process. We got it to a completed, positive product, and I think it’s a very, very reassuring message.

JIM LEHRER: Now you said a moment ago that in the unlikely event of a terrorist attack – now as we sit here now, we are still in orange alert, are we not?


JIM LEHRER: Now, we’ve been here for 10 days?


JIM LEHRER: Now you were quoted a few days ago as saying, well, it may come down after we get past the weekend and Hajj and all of that. But it hasn’t happened yet. What’s going on?

TOM RIDGE: Right. Well, the decision to elevate the threat level is not a decision that’s made spontaneously; it’s based on an assessment over a period of time, based on all the information that we receive and a determination as to its credibility and our ability to corroborate. A similar decision to reduce the level is made in a similar way over a period of several days — several days to ramp up, and we continue to look at that information, and one of the critical points for that information is that much of the information we received about a potential attack was during the period of the Hajj. That obviously is the time frame — the time certain that has expired. We continue to assess the credibility of the rest of the information and see if sometime in the near future we can reduce the level.

JIM LEHRER: Take us through the process of how you go about deciding whether or not to leave it at orange, or to raise it to orange in the first place, to leave it at orange, to knock it back to yellow or even raise it to red, what’s the process?

TOM RIDGE: There are multiple units in government, organizations in government to get information both from domestic and international sources and then we of course have allies that feed us information as well. And on a daily basis hundreds and hundreds of analysts, CIA, FBI, but other intelligence gathering agencies churn the information, look at the information, and they’re doing a far better job of sharing it.

JIM LEHRER: Who do they give it to?

TOM RIDGE: They share it with each other. They sit down twice a day, representatives from the different agencies.

JIM LEHRER: Including —

TOM RIDGE: Absolutely. They video conference twice a day, make assessments, draw opinions, and in the process itself when we — time permitting, the president has instructed that his Homeland Security Council and many members of the Cabinet sit, listen to the intelligence report, share opinions, and make hopefully a collective determination. In this instance it was universally recognized based on everything that was laid out before us that this was a time for us to go up. A similar process takes place in order to reduce the threat level, so there’s a collaborative process over a period of time.

JIM LEHRER: Now, as secretary of homeland security when you sit at that table, like in this case, when the decision was made ten days ago, did you sit there and say to yourself, I’m sitting here as an individual with an individual set of eyes and ears and judgment to make your own conclusion as to whether or not the country should go?

TOM RIDGE: Really.

JIM LEHRER: And you agreed 100 percent?

TOM RIDGE: Well, it was interesting in the whole process — and again it’s a process that occurs over a period of time, days, we did not start out with universal agreement. But as we got more information —

JIM LEHRER: Some people thought, hey, wait a minute, this wasn’t justified —

TOM RIDGE: People thought, well, this is serious; the volume is there; and the credibility may not be there, let’s just wait; but over a period of time those who were a little hesitant grew progressively more supportive. I mean, that’s how deliberative the process is. Nobody walks in and makes a spontaneous decision and says we’ve got to go up today and we’re going to go down the next several days.

It was a very thoughtful process, and one of the challenges is in this whole effort to combat terrorism and to give the country a warning is that there is some science in this business and there’s a lot of art, which means there can be a difference of opinion, but when you have all these individuals who bring a certain perspective and a feeling about this information based on their experience and intuition and everything else, when they universally agree, you know it’s time to raise the threat level.

JIM LEHRER: Ten days ago, the night that this was announced, you appeared on Nightline and you told Ted Koppel that on a scale — he was a — as a result of a question — I looked at the transcript today —

TOM RIDGE: He wanted me to give a number —

JIM LEHRER: I know. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but essentially the way it came out was on a scale of ten you said there was an eight — it was an eight the likeliness of a terrorist attack within the next few days.

TOM RIDGE: That’s what we thought.

JIM LEHRER: Do you still think that now?

TOM RIDGE: Well, the number is probably modified. He did — he’s a very good journalist and he got me to do something that initially I started to say I’m not going to do.

JIM LEHRER: But you gave him a number.

TOM RIDGE: But I gave him a number and rue the day obviously. The universal opinion within the White House and the people that count, the people who worry about these things every single day is this was the most serious set of warnings they had seen since pre-Sept. 11, 2001, so it was in the high end, the high range, and again, to get it to that level where there was agreement took a few days and to take a look at the information, the time period has elapsed, determine the credibility of the information, see if there’s further corroboration, see if there’s additional information in the system, it takes a couple of days to assess as well.

JIM LEHRER: Well, in retrospect, you look back and say, wait a minute, somebody made a mistake here. They got the people all jazzed up for nothing; the threat was not there…

TOM RIDGE: The threat was there.

JIM LEHRER: It was that serious?


JIM LEHRER: And it remains that serious?

TOM RIDGE: Today it does. In the next twenty-four or forty-eight hours, based upon what additional information we’ve learned that’s new and as we go back and continue to assess and churn the information that we had gathered from other sources, we may draw a different conclusion and there’s a little science and a lot of art. It’s a tough business because a lot of the information you get, most of the information you get, even if you can say it’s credible information, it’s still general — time, place, manner, means — you don’t normally see that in the noise or the chatter that you pick up.

JIM LEHRER: Is that what this is mostly about, noise and chatter? It isn’t about specific information — just because people are talking about doing something that you don’t hear anything other than that?

TOM RIDGE: Well, they —

JIM LEHRER: Is that what this is all about?

TOM RIDGE: — we learned from the success of the military, we get through the safe houses and the training camps and we pick up documents and training manuals and the like. We know what some of these individuals have been trained to do. We picked up some of the films that had been broadcast, the training films.

Remember our allies have detained over 2,000 al-Qaida operatives, so they’re interrogated; we learn more and more information, and we learn from time to time interest in doing specific things and other — their interest in crude chemical or biological weapons and other things; we learn of their interest in potentially using assassins. We do learn specific interest about general things but as to time and place, the kind of specificity that you’d hope you would receive, I think those are going — have been and will continue to be rare events.

JIM LEHRER: Never have gotten any information like that thus far, specific information about a specific target?

TOM RIDGE: Well, we have. We have. A couple of times — you can recall many, many months ago — we had information about certain venues and certain parts of the country. When we do get some of this information that is venue specific, perhaps city specific or target specific, but it’s not necessarily credible or corroborated, sometimes we still communicate that information to the local joint terrorism task force that has the FBI and the state police and the local police and all the first responders, just so they know what the intelligence community is working on. It’s information that is not necessarily actionable —


TOM RIDGE: They don’t have to do anything, but we want them to know that we’ve heard this in that cluster of information that we’re gathering.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence thus far, Mr. Secretary, that this kind of alerts, either public alerts or law enforcement alerts, have in fact resulted in the thwarting of a specific terrorist attack?

TOM RIDGE: We absolutely believe it’s a deterrence.

JIM LEHRER: But do you know of a specific case where, hey…

TOM RIDGE: Proving the unknown is pretty difficult. Proving that what you did absolutely thwarted attack is… is a pretty difficult calculation. But from our discussion with people and our, I think, our understanding of how these terrorists operate, when you are more aware, when you change your security pattern, when you enhance your security pattern, that in and of itself is a disruptive influence and is a deterrent. And so when we go up and the patterns are changed and the patterns of protection are added, additional methods are taken, we believe it is a strong deterrent.

JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned at all about the “wolf, wolf” problem in terms of the public generally, these alerts and then nothing happens? There is another alert and nothing happens, and people eventually take them like a weather forecast, nothing much more important than that?

TOM RIDGE: Well, we are concerned that the public learn in its part of our ability to deliver a very clear message, as well as the ability of others to communicate the message clearly. And sometimes, we have communicated information to a local community, not because we wanted them to act on it, but because we thought they needed to know it. That is… “we were hearing it, you should know it, we’re going to follow up.” Then suddenly, we see that information in the newspaper, and we see it on television; it’s not actionable information and some people have a tendency to say, “They warned us.” Well, we didn’t warn to you do things differently. We just wanted you to know that this is going on and we’re following up on it.

We’ve actually only raised the threat level twice in the past five or six months. And I think, in time, we will not only learn the distinction between information we would share with local law enforcement and first responders — it’s not really actionable — but we want you to know what you’re hearing, and we’ll follow up with you if we get additional information. That kind of work we do with joint terrorism task force all around the country. And the significant occasions when we make an announcement that the national law enforcement community, we’re going to raise the threat level. Huge distinction between the two, but we haven’t quite made it as well as we need to.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Finally, Mr. Secretary, let me read you what the mayor of Baltimore said on Monday. “Most of America’s population and most of its economic infrastructure are nearly as vulnerable to attack now as they were on Sept. 11, 2001,” is he right?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I wish the mayor could travel with me. I went today to Cincinnati, and I saw and learned again, been there before, what that community and that region has done over the past 15 months. They are a far stronger community, a far safer community. I know what they are doing in Chicago and Houston and L.A. and New York, so I think it is all relative. I would say to the mayor: Your community is much stronger. I know he’s worked hard. I know with his leadership they are doing things differently. He’s enhanced security. His community is safer and stronger, it’s not where we need to be and it’s not where we will go, but we are far better prepared to prevent an attack and reduce our vulnerability and respond to one today than we were on Sept. 12, 2001.

JIM LEHRER: One of the major complaints, as you know, from mayors and others, has been the lack of resources that have come from the federal government. We have just… on this program a few days ago, we had the president of the International Association of Firefighters, that’s the firemen’s union. He said: “The simple fact is, that for the last 16 months, we’ve been receiving notable praise, a lot of prayers, a lot of recognition, but the federal government has really failed to date to provide our cities and communities with the resources we need.”

TOM RIDGE: He was right to be frustrated. The president and his budget in February of last year had $3.5 million to police and firemen. And there was nearly $6 billion for us to build a broader and stronger public health network. And so the fact that he is frustrated and other governors and mayors are frustrated, that hopefully we’ll put an end to some of that when we get this $3.5 billion out the door that the Congress just passed. The president had submitted a similar amount for the 2004 budget, and hopefully working with this gentleman, Howard…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, exactly.

TOM RIDGE: …and others, we can get it out to the communities the way they want it and the way they need it with a little bit more flexibility than this appropriation process gave us, but we have $3.5 billion going out the door, and we’re going to get it out as quickly as possible.

JIM LEHRER: Is the priority right, do you think, in terms of the federal government and the need to beef up and better fund homeland security?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think it is across the board. I think everyone needs to accept the notion that the federal government has a role to provide resources and leadership, and the new department has clearly a huge responsibility in this area, but it is a shared responsibility. I think the priority is right.

What I would like to be able to convince my colleagues in public service in the 2004 budget is a little less ear-marking from Washington so there is a lot more flexibility for that fire chief and police chiefs and emergency management agents back home in their hometowns, because we don’t ultimately secure the homeland from Washington, we have to help these communities secure their own communities. And with a little more flexibility, hopefully in the year 2004 we can do that.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

TOM RIDGE: A great pleasure to be with you again. Thank you very much.