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Newsmaker: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

September 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. I spoke with him earlier this evening. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

TOM RIDGE: Good to be back.

JIM LEHRER: Your announcement today about more air marshals being made available, what… 5,000, is that right? That’s the number?

TOM RIDGE: We’re going to take several thousand men and women who are presently federal air marshals from the Transportation Security Administration, and we’re going to put them with the other law enforcement officers within the Department.

We’ll also cross train these other officers so we’ll not only have several thousand federal air marshals but we’ll have, if we need them, literally thousands more that we could use to enhance and improve aviation security if we need them.

JIM LEHRER: Why are they needed? Why have you done this?

TOM RIDGE: One of the challenges we’ve had around any sector of the economy or anything we’ve tried to make more secure is to build in layers of defense because there’s not a single group of people or not a single technology, not a single plan of action that provides what we consider to be the maximum amount of security.

So the federal air marshals, several thousand of them on our flights arming pilots – we’re in the process of doing that. If you remember pre-9/11, 9/10, you went through an airport, somebody might have checked your baggage and if you had a Swiss army knife they might have taken it off you, but we didn’t have the kind of trained professionals that we needed. We ramped up that dramatically as well.

So this is just one of several things we believe we need to maximize the security for men and women and families who travel.

JIM LEHRER: You say several thousand. Can you be more specific than that?

TOM RIDGE: Well, it’s a classified number in terms of those who are presently federal air marshals, but there are thousands. And by moving these men and women – and we consider them….

JIM LEHRER: Who are these folks now? They’re border patrol officers?

TOM RIDGE: They will be. They’ll going to become part of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These are a group of men and women who out of the Legacy customs, Legacy INS, other Legacy agencies, had law enforcement responsibilities.

We thought about moving… when we thought about putting the air marshals there, it’s a better career path for them.

I mean, flying as an air marshal for twenty/twenty-five years may not keep the best people available and keep them as motivated as we want. They will be cross-trained to do some other things, just like the other individuals in their new department, will be trained from time to time to move as air marshals if we need them. Again, one more way of enhancing protection.

JIM LEHRER: Unless there’s some classified situation involved here, as far as most people can tell all an air marshal does is get on an airplane, sit in first class, and fly some place, get off, go on another plane and come back, is that right?

TOM RIDGE: Air marshals really do a lot more than that and they’ll be able to do it even better as they pour them in.

Access to real-time information – there are other things that air marshals can and will be doing around aviation security now that they’re a part of this new entity that we’ve created out of the old, some of the old members of Customs and INS, and frankly they’ll also give us a capacity, depending on the threat, depending on the need, they’ll be trained to do other law enforcement… meet other law enforcement needs of the new department.

Maybe customs people need them; maybe they will need them to help investigate other potential terrorist activity outside aviation.

JIM LEHRER: But was it fair to say that some of the motivation for making these changes was that this was considered awfully boring work by people who were highly trained?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think part of the consideration again was for us to attract the best and most qualified and highly motivated people, we have a lot of them but to keep them in the Department of Homeland Security.

And it’s been our experience that if we can train more people to do more things and then have the flexibility to use them where we need them, then the Department will be stronger and America will be safer.

JIM LEHRER: Does this mean that Homeland Security Department considers airline travel the number-one threat of terrorism still?

TOM RIDGE: It means among other things that we continue to work within the Department and with the Congress to add additional protection around commercial aviation and the people that fly. It has been and is and will always be one of the top priorities of the Department.

JIM LEHRER: Is it “the” top priority?

TOM RIDGE: We have to have several top priorities. We have to be right several thousand times a day. The terrorist only has to be right once. And so as we look at commercial aviation, we take a look at our ports, we take a look at our borders, I mean, there are a lot of places we have to be right.

Wherever we see a vulnerability – more often than not – you will find that working with the president and Congress, we will probably add layers of defense. And this is just one additional layer.

JIM LEHRER: Early in the summer there was a specific alert that went out that al-Qaida teams of five or more, something like that, were going to target commercial airliners either in the United States or maybe in other countries, but Americans involved as targets. Is that warning still in effect?

TOM RIDGE: Well, there has been a consistent drum beat from all the intelligence sources that al-Qaida and this group continue to view or would like to continue to use aviation, continue to use airplanes as instruments of terror. It is because of that continued expression of interest that we continue to add more and more levels of protection around commercial aviation.

So whether they’re targeting one group, three groups, a team of this or a team of that, we know that one of the experiences that we have with terrorist organizations, they like often will go back and employ or deploy the same methods that were successful previously.

They turned several commercial airliners into missiles on 9/11. They got an opportunity to do it again – we just want to make it a lot tougher if not impossible for them to do it.

JIM LEHRER: But that specific alert is that still in effect?

TOM RIDGE: That’s still – we passed on that information that they were targeting and talking about using commercial aviation, but that’s just a general threat against commercial aviation. And the reason the threat persists, the reason we continue to be persistent in our effort to provide more and more protection.

JIM LEHRER: On the more general threat area, where do we stand now in terms of the color-coded alert?

TOM RIDGE: We’re at code yellow today. It’s an assessment we make every single day. That’s where we are, where we have been for several months.

JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory. What does that mean?

TOM RIDGE: It means that according to the best intelligence that we have and analysis that is shared among principals within the president’s cabinet, that we are at an elevated risk of a terrorist attack.

It also means, particularly a year since we inaugurated or launched the system, that our level of protection at yellow is a little bit different and frankly it’s better and stronger than it was a year ago because this is a signal we send to security and law enforcement people that you need to do additional things.

So right now it is our collective belief that within the intelligence community that we are at an elevated level of risk. It’s been that way for two or three months.

JIM LEHRER: Since May.

TOM RIDGE: Yes and we make an assessment on a day-to-day basis. JIM LEHRER: But there has not been much discussion of this lately. Does this mean that the threat is in the middle of yellow? Are you on the verge of – are you thinking about raising it? In other words, is it toward the top part towards orange or on the bottom part towards the other…?

TOM RIDGE: We don’t have the… I’m not sure we’ll ever have the information to be that nuanced about it. But what it does mean is that for the past several months – as we take a look on a daily basis if the information is out there not only from our sources but from around the world – our notion that we are at that level of risk of a terrorist attack has remained constant.

But again, that is an assessment that we make on a day-to-day basis. And, frankly, twice a day, the representatives from the agencies involved in that assessment meet by videoconference to review the threat, review the vulnerability and really even begin the discussions – should we make any change or not.

JIM LEHRER: As you know, Mr. Secretary, there are some people who think this whole thing is a lousy system, the color coded thing.

TOM RIDGE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: I was reading today, Senator Lautenberg, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, said a couple of weeks ago, “the terror alert system may be contributing to the very panic and confusion in our society that the terrorists seek to generate.”

TOM RIDGE: First of all, I think it is a very good and sound system. I think it is a system that has been designed – I know, we helped design it – it is a system designed so that if we ever got the kind of information that would enable us to say to Senator Lautenberg, New Jersey is going from yellow to orange or certain facilities in your state is going yellow to orange, we can do that. There’s enough flexibility in system to do it.

But I don’t think it has done anything other than increase the awareness when we’ve used I. We haven’t used it in the last three or four months.

JIM LEHRER: You haven’t gone to orange.

TOM RIDGE: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: But these general alerts that’s what most people are complaining about. Well, okay, so what else is new? Nothing changes. Even local enforcement now say that. They no longer put people on overtime. They no longer… when anything changes, it’s nothing more they can do, they say. Study after study, survey after survey says that. Are you frustrated at all that this system isn’t working?

TOM RIDGE: No, I do think it is working, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: You do?

TOM RIDGE: Because right now at code yellow there are precautions and safety measures and security measures that are in place, number one, that weren’t in place a year ago as people accept the notion that we are at an elevated level of risk and therefore on a permanent basis we ought to have at least this level of security.

If we ever take it to orange, that’s a signal to the law enforcement and security personnel that now you have to take it up to the next level.

It is a system that I think has worked to achieve those goals and I know people are frustrated because it’s a general alert but I assure them, as soon as we have specific, credible information so we can target the alert, we will, because it is designed to do that.

JIM LEHRER: But you haven’t done that yet, have you? You haven’t targeted a specific.

TOM RIDGE: We haven’t been able to do it because we haven’t had the specific… the information that was both credible and specific so we could target it.

Again, every single day we get more and more information about individuals, operations, methods of operation, and again one of the things the president has led in the war on global terrorism is the collective effort of these nations to pull together information from multiple sources and share it and then act on it.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your feeling that the United States is more vulnerable or less vulnerable to a terrorist attack now than it was two years ago on September 11, 2001?

TOM RIDGE: We are two years, nearly two years post-9/11 far safer than we were. Just conjure this for a moment, what we used to do when you walked in to get on an airplane and what you experience now, admittedly there was some convenience, but there are a lot more security measures being taken.

The borders on 9/11 they had a bunch of orange cones there and people were waiting in line for hours and hours if not almost a day to get across. But we began the process of working with Canadian and Mexican government to identify people and cargo so we can shift our resources to the people and cargo we don’t know.

We’ve got far better communications state and local officials. We’re developing a secure network so we can share classified information with governors and homeland security advisors.

All the states and the territories have developed the national threat warning system and are putting in security measures accordingly. We’re working with the private sector to that end. We’ve stockpiled, I mean right after the anthrax crisis, the biggest fear was will there be enough antibiotics? Now we’ve got over a billion stockpiles including enough antibiotics for an anthrax attack.

So on an incremental basis but a steady basis day by day we get to a new level of readiness every day.

JIM LEHRER: But at the same time hasn’t the risk increased with the action against Iraq? In other words, the potential for terrorist attacks has risen accordingly with our ability to confront them, right?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I wouldn’t conclude that the potential has been enhanced because we have decapitated a lot of their leadership. We have frozen a lot of their accounts. I mean, they still need money to operate. We, with our allies, have frozen a lot of dollars. We are getting more information about them.

But because they are decentralized and because they are persistent and patient and because we know we have been and will be the primary target, I still think that we still have… we can’t rest on what we’ve done the past two years. We have to do a heck of a lot more in the next two years.

JIM LEHRER: What’s been the problem getting federal money to the local authorities and to the states to beef up their homeland security problems?

TOM RIDGE: The first problem was that the… a lot of the… huge sum of money that the president put in this 2003 budget that they legitimately anticipated getting access to last October/November because they couldn’t get a budget passed, that money didn’t come in to… it wasn’t appropriated and wasn’t signed until this March.

We now have nearly $4 billion out on the street. The federal government has done its part in the various grant programs for the fire grant program, the state and local money, the urban security initiative, the dollars that have been appropriated are out on the street and we are now working with states and local governments to get the money channeled in.

But the federal government has done its part. Now we need the state and locals to access it so we can buy equipment and pay for training exercises and the like.

JIM LEHRER: Much was said, as you know, Mr. Secretary, as you know before you became secretary of Homeland Security, before there was a Department of Homeland Security that Ridge needs to be a member of the cabinet. Once he’s a member of the cabinet and there’s a cabinet office, things will be different. Has it been different?

TOM RIDGE: For the country there’s been an enormous difference, but not just because of what we’ve done.

I think it’s very appropriate to cite the cabinet because since September 11 under the leadership of the president, the mission of the FBI has been refocused from law enforcement to dealing with combating domestic terrorism; Health and Human Services, which always a significant piece of the effort to deal with public health, has also shifted resources and taken on the challenge along with the Department of Homeland Security to deal with the potential biological attack; the Department of Justice…I mean, you go down the list of cabinet agencies; the Department of Agriculture.

I mean everybody since 9/11 has been doing things differently and more aggressively as it relates and more as it relates to terrorism – state partners, local partners the private sector. We are all engaged in this.

I mean, one of the missions of the Department of Homeland Security is to build and then sustain partnerships with governors and mayors and fire chiefs and police chiefs in the security personnel in factories and plants around the country. We’ve been very successful so far but we still have more work to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have the power to do what you need to do?

TOM RIDGE: Yes I do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have the clout?

TOM RIDGE: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Do people listen to you as a member of the cabinet more so than they did before?

TOM RIDGE: Yes they do. It’s one of the interesting lessons learned during this whole process. The president reminded Congress and asked Congress to be patient shortly after I was appointed special assistant for homeland security so that we could make our own independent analysis, do our own review of the… of government to see if it was organized as well or as effectively as it could be to combat a permanent condition of global terrorism.

We concluded it was not and therefore some of the responsibilities that I would have had to kind of coordinate between Customs and INS and these other agencies, now that it’s in the department….

JIM LEHRER: You’ve got them, you’re the boss.

TOM RIDGE: We’ve got them. So it’s not a matter of coordinating; it’s really a matter of directing. It’s a big difference.

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

TOM RIDGE: Nice to be with you again. Thank you, Jim.