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Tom Ridge

December 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now to our Newsmaker interview with the Director of the Office of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Governor, welcome.

TOM RIDGE: Jim, nice to join you this evening.

JIM LEHRER: Your deal with Canada today, what’s going to change as a result of this?

TOM RIDGE: I think over the next couple of months working on our smart border declaration and working with the foreign minister, we’re going to see changes in technology that will facilitate the flow of the goods and services across the borders. We hope to also see changes affecting mutual security interests with regard to immigration policy, refugee and asylum status. What we signed today was basically a 30-point agreement. There are 30 matters that we want to deal with in the months ahead to basically enhance security for both countries and improve the extraordinary economic relationship we have between the two countries.

JIM LEHRER: Now, that relationship is being damaged as we sit here, is it not, because of the border crossing problems?

TOM RIDGE: As of September 11th we obviously started looking at the borders for security reasons. And very appropriately as we look to enhance security, we created a problem and a backlog for the flow of commerce and goods and people, back and forth. And so as we address the security concerns, we can also enhance, I think, the commercial interaction as well, and Foreign Minister Manley and I are pledged to do just that. So the delegation we took up there today, Jim, we had folks representing the Department of Justice, and from Treasury, and from State and from Defense, and a whole range of issues that we are going to work on, and Minister Manley is a very action-oriented individual. We feel very comfortable that we’ve set a very aggressive agenda, but we’d like to complete it in the months ahead.

JIM LEHRER: In the months ahead?

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: There’s nothing going to happen tomorrow?

TOM RIDGE: One of the things we did today is reinstate a very interesting program; it’s called the Nexus Program. We have permanent residents on both sides that travel across the border on a regular basis for commercial reasons, for recreational reasons to visit relatives, and it’s a technology program. We’re testing two forms of technology; there are four to five thousand people who have been pre-cleared, pre-screened, it’s almost like an easy pass system. We see the application of this kind of technology that will not only facilitate the flow of commerce and people, but also there are some applications that would enhance security as well.

JIM LEHRER: All right. The alert that you issued on December 4th, a week ago yesterday –

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: — is it still in effect?

TOM RIDGE: Yes, it is. One of the biggest challenges we have on a daily basis as we find out more information and there’s more intelligence gathering is at what point in time do we remind America that since September 11th there’s a body of information out there that suggests that al-Qaida and sympathizers to bin Laden– there’s some activity, that we need to be on the highest state of alert. It’s not very specific information, but on three occasions since September 11th we’ve had from multiple sources — multiple credible sources — information that the entire intelligence community agreed we should either keep to ourselves or remind America, remind America. We’ve got to deal with bin Laden, we’ve got to dismantle al-Qaida, but be on guard, particularly the convergence of these three religious observations: Hanukkah, Ramadan and Christmas; there’s some historical precedent to al-Qaida acting during this period.

JIM LEHRER: And Ramadan is over on Sunday.

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: But the alert will continue after Sunday, won’t it?

TOM RIDGE: I think as Homeland Security Director my hope is that Americans– first the vigilance of individual citizens, but obviously the heightened alert of our law enforcement community until we deal specifically with bin Laden and are able to dismantle more substantially al-Qaida, remain on a high alert.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to folks — for instance a newspaper in your home state, The Allentown Call, referred to you Sunday – they didn’t refer to you– they said that other people are referring to you as the man who’s become known as – you’re becoming known as the man who calls “wolf.”

TOM RIDGE: Well, you know, that’s a concern that we all have internally. And I think America does, because we’re all very familiar with the story. I used to share that story with my children over and over again. But the world changed dramatically on September 11th. And as we go about adjusting to the new environment, the new threat to our national security, our economic security and our personal security, we need to be on the highest alert. One of the challenges that we have, and I’ve begun these discussions with the law enforcement community, is to develop a language of alert that says to either local, state or national law enforcement communities, we expect that this level of alert very similar to what they have in the Defense Department, that you are prepared to do this and you’ll have assets deployed in response to the alert. We haven’t gotten there yet, but it is a goal, but we have to remain on high alert.

JIM LEHRER: Right now — but it’s either high alert or no alert now?

TOM RIDGE: That’s exactly right. And on three occasions – three occasions — not every day — but on three occasions, and I would say to those who question– and I understand, I understand the story of the little boy who cried “wolf” and I understand the implications. But the intelligence community doesn’t always agree about these alerts, but on these three occasions everyone was in concert. We remind America, just remind America, we’re still at war, we’re still at war.

JIM LEHRER: Now, we have had, following the last two alerts, we’ve had by coincidence groups of mayors on our program –

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: — they’ve been meeting — in fact the day you addressed them we had some mayors on and that was the alert before last and we had them on last week. Without exception, didn’t matter whether they were little cities or big cities or medium-sized cities, they said this is just great, Ridge puts out an alert, and that means that we have to do something, but we find out first of all about the alert on television, we’re already at the highest alert. So it doesn’t really mean very much to us anymore, because we’re already in high alert. So what do you say to them when they say that to you?

TOM RIDGE: I would say to them that I appreciate the fact that they are maintaining their law enforcement community on the highest alert, but a little reminder from time to time. But it also is calling on citizens to be vigilant. The citizen vigilance enabled us to identify that individual who was, the FBI was looking for who sent those hoax letters out to — around the various states, he went into a Kinko’s to get apparently something Xeroxed, whatever –

JIM LEHRER: Wagner –

TOM RIDGE: — and a citizen was on high alert and said I think that may be the troublemaker, we ought to report this to the police. So I understand their frustration. If I could give them specific information, I would give them specific information. I’ve had the same discussion with my friends, the governors. And when we can give them specific corroborated information from credible sources, we’re certainly going to do that, but it’s a different world. We’re not looking to see military assets being moved back and forth, we’re putting together bits and pieces about potential activity.

JIM LEHRER: Governor King of Maine said this. “We just aren’t financially geared up for this level of what is really a national defense expenditure. The question for us is: Where do you stop with providing security?”

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think the governors very appropriately are concerned about the expense issue and the role that the federal government will play, and the federal assumption of some of the expenses associated with this war on terrorism. I mean it’s not just the security issue, we need to build up our public health infrastructure, governors want to do that. They want to be able to respond to a bioterrorist threat. So clearly that’s an issue. They want us to help their first responders, those police and firemen and emergency service personnel, and I’m very– we’re very aware of that. The 2003 budget will begin to address in very significant ways some legitimate concerns that these governors have.

JIM LEHRER: Because they make the point when you dial 911 you don’t get the FBI or Homeland Security Office, you get the local police or firemen.

TOM RIDGE: The first responders to an event, whether it’s a natural disaster or as we saw with the horror and the tragedy of September 11th, are your neighbors: The policemen and firemen and that ambulance driver that you go to church with, you work with, you play softball with. And one of the things we’ll be doing as we coordinate a national strategy is working with the states and working with the mayors to train and equip these first responders, and that’s part of the expense that has got to be borne by the federal government.

JIM LEHRER: So help is on the way?

TOM RIDGE: Help is on the way.

JIM LEHRER: Is the anthrax threat pretty much over for now?

TOM RIDGE: Well, hopefully, prayerfully. I mean I think that to date we’ve again, we suspect that there was another letter out there and we found out that it was the Leahy letter. We can’t guarantee it, but we know that we’ve learned quite a bit about anthrax and how it can be dispersed — and then more importantly how we can treat it and how we must treat it during that very difficult five or six weeks for the East Coast — hopefully it’s over. But we’re certainly better prepared today than we were two months ago to deal with it if it surfaces again.

JIM LEHRER: Is the prevailing theory that there was one person or one group of people who did these letters and that was it?

TOM RIDGE: Well.

JIM LEHRER: I’m talking about Leahy, Daschle and the news media letters.

TOM RIDGE: I think initially there were some of us, and I plead guilty to this, who thought it was more than a mere coincidence shortly after September 11th and was thinking more in terms of foreign sources. But I think a lot of the information and a lot of the things they’ve been able to detect from the investigation and follow-up leads they’re looking more inward to a domestic source.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the problem, why can’t they find out who did this?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think it’s very sophisticated and complex investigation. The FBI and state and local police, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of men and women. But they’ve got some leads and they’re following up and I feel pretty confident that we’ll get the individual or individuals.

JIM LEHRER: You are confident –

TOM RIDGE: It’s a matter of time.

JIM LEHRER: In a short period of time – or –

TOM RIDGE: I don’t know. The only thing I think America should be reassured is that Director Mueller and his FBI agents and there are literally hundreds of state and local officials and the postal inspectors, everybody is working 24-7 to follow up every conceivable lead, every conceivable prospect, they are working very hard on it. And I believe their effort will be rewarded sometime.

JIM LEHRER: Attorney General Ashcroft has caught some heat for allegedly suggesting the criticism of him is aiding and abetting the terrorists. How do you feel about that?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I read his remarks a little differently. Maybe some people apparently felt that he was stepping on their shoes. But I didn’t think so at all. I think Attorney General Ashcroft is a fine lawyer, is doing an exceptional job as Attorney General, is a great patriot, he’s doing everything he can to minimize risk of harm and to minimize the risk of a repeat of the tragedy that we saw on September 11th. And I think that we all know, and nobody knows it better than the Attorney General of the United States who swears to uphold the Constitution, that that Bill of Right says that those of us in public office get criticized and our motives are questioned, our decisions are questioned, why do you keep going on high alert – so that’s just very much a part of the democracy that he’s sworn to uphold and protect and he’s trying his very best, and I think doing a great job defending.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t feel that anybody who questions you or criticizes you is somehow helping the terrorists?

TOM RIDGE: Not at all, not at all. I think in this whole dialogue, and I think there is a very appropriate dialogue, it’s very much what the terrorists want to undermine and undercut and walking that line between protecting and defending your country and the civil liberties that make us unique and make us very proud to be Americans – it’s a difficult walk, and I think the Attorney General has got the right balance. He’s walked it well.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of criticism, do you bristle when you read, as several newspaper editorials I read over the weekend said, oh, if only our homeland security, our war against terrorism at home could be going as well as our war against terrorism in Afghanistan were going. Does that bother you?

TOM RIDGE: Not at all — it a different kind of war. We have to deploy different kind of assets. We’ve got to think about both the short and long-term strategy in a new environment that frankly the federal government, state and local and even the private sector really hadn’t considered. We have always been an open and welcoming and trusting country. Maybe we’re a little bit naive. But I think those who have questions as to regard to this should be assured every single day since the office was created that at the end of the day we are better and stronger and safer. We’re not there yet; it’s going to take months and years to build up the kind of defense mechanism. We didn’t create the Department of Defense in over a month or two. These are assets we’re going to bring together. But I’m very confident with the will of not just government but the will of citizens generally to participate and help. We’ll win the war at home; it’s just going to take us a little longer.

JIM LEHRER: Help us understand how it works for you. Let’s say that you decide as Director of Homeland Security that there ought to be more air marshals at some airport or some particular flight or something. Do you have the power to call Secretary Mineta, the Transportation Secretary, and say get more air marshals, or do you have to go through the president, get him to do it? How does your power chain work?

TOM RIDGE: Well, it’s a very appropriate question, because there are a lot of people that question the power base, which the authority — what’s either the moral or the legislative imperative that enables me to get people to move. Basically, the president has said that this is a war against terrorism and terrorists. There’s a conventional front; that’s in Afghanistan. But there’s a second front; that’s in the United States. Now, winning this war is my number one priority; it’s this nation’s number one priority, and this is the individual in charge of that front here in the United States. And to date when I’ve made a request, asked to shift resources to get things done as I develop this homeland security response, there hasn’t been any difficulty whatsoever.

JIM LEHRER: But you can go directly to the CDC or whoever it is and say I want this done and they’ll do it?

TOM RIDGE: Sure. There was a couple times obviously early on, there was a time during the anthrax crisis that there was a problem with communication and everybody was working very hard, but there was a discordant sound, we weren’t speaking with one voice, we needed to coordinate and collaborate; we brought them all in one night and made some decisions. I talk to cabinet members every day. Tommy Thompson and I have worked on –

JIM LEHRER: HHS Secretary –

TOM RIDGE: — the infrastructure structure at HHS, Secretary Mineta, Secretary Abraham at Energy – [Environmental Protection Agency] Administrator Whitman. On a day-to-day basis, we are working together to get things done. To date there’s been no pushback whatsoever.

JIM LEHRER: In a word you have the power to do the job?

TOM RIDGE: I’ve got the power to do the job because the president wants the job done, that’s all the power I need.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, thank you.

TOM RIDGE: Thank you, Jim, nice to be with you.