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interview: tom ridge
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Tom Ridge was sworn in as the first secretary of homeland security in January 2003. Prior to that, he served as the director of the Office of Homeland Security that was established after the Sept. 11 attacks. In this interview, he describes the president's daily threat briefings and how the Lackawanna case was at the top of the agenda. He tells FRONTLINE that President Bush personally asked very specific questions as the investigation progressed. Ridge also says that the Lackawanna case was one reason that his department decided to raise the threat level around the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 30, 2003.

... Tell me about these [White House] meetings in the morning, because the public isn't there. You all gather at what time? What happens? What's the order of events?

... Every morning, we meet with the president, 8:15-ish. But by then he's already got an hour and a half's worth of briefings in from his chief of staff, from the CIA director and others, because there's so many other issues that the CIA deals with, in addition to international terrorism, obviously.

The question becomes, when is there enough [information] to act on? When is there enough to send the FBI out? When is there enough to go to the president and recommend that you raise the threat level?

But around 8:15, we convene with the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, the attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director, the president's special assistant to the homeland security, and myself and then maybe one or two others. The process is fairly similar. We review the threat, not only domestically, but internationally. The CIA gives a briefing. Then they're after the FBI director and the attorney general to provide a briefing. There are days when I can add to that conversation as well. Then oftentimes there's a general conversation about a particular piece of information. Oftentimes we are directed or instructed by the president to do certain things. Oftentimes, and more often than not, there's just generally a good interaction among all the principals about the way ahead.

That's what I understand.

Yes.

There is actually a give and take, a questioning, a sort of cross-examination of people about what are the developments here and what's happening?

Oh, clearly. I mean, it's pretty clear that whenever you give the president a briefing paper, you'd best assume that he read it, because the next day -- whether it's in that morning briefing session or occasionally we have other briefing sessions on homeland security issues -- the president will go to the heart of what you're trying to do and ask, frankly, all the right questions.

In the morning session, again, based on the information, there will be discussion as to whether or not we need more assistance from some of our allies overseas; what precautionary measures or what information we've shared with state and local governments; how is the coordination going between bits and pieces of information that may have come up in both reports. So there's a give and take. Every day is different because, by and large, the intelligence that they gather every single day is different.

Take me back a year or so ago to, let's say, May 2002. What was going on in those briefings? Did the Lackawanna situation come up?

You're asking me to think back and tell you whether or not the Lackawanna briefing came up. It obviously came up. I'm not sure I can put it specifically in that May time frame. But it did come up.

It was interesting. I had a small group of analysts and staff in the Office of Homeland Security. They had some concerns about some of the intelligence they had seen as it related to activity in that part of Buffalo, the potential terrorist activity. The FBI had it; other folks had it. So I know in the back of my mind there were discussions about who these people were, what were they doing. Particularly, [as] the FBI and the Department of Justice dug deeper and deeper, [they] discovered that some had actually had gone overseas; not only where they had gone, but what they had done when they got there. Again, the picture became broader and clearer over time as the FBI dug deeper and deeper.

Well, these were American citizens who had gone over to be trained. That was unusual.

Yes.

Did you talk about that? Do you remember talking about that?

I think from the get-go, all of us involved in the administration's effort, as well as the analysts and the pundits and everybody outside the administration, have always felt that even though the terrorists that struck us on 9/11 were from two countries, that there was a good possibility that the face of international terrorism was truly global. Nobody was naïve to think that there might not be sympathizers or those actually working on terrorist operations who, one, wouldn't be in the United States, and two, couldn't possibly be citizens.

A year ago, July 4 coming up now -- do you remember a sense of the threat level or a discussion of it, related to any of the activities around this group? Did they feed into your evaluation?

I can't answer that specifically, but I can answer it in general terms. I don't believe there has been an occasion -- and we've raised the threat level four times -- that there has been a single occasion where there was one plot line, one piece of information, one source that actually generated the information or the concern so great that the president's Homeland Security Council -- and that is the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the FBI director, the CIA director, attorney general and myself -- would have recommended to the president that they raise the threat level. On the four occasions we've raised the threat level, there have been multiple sources we consider to be credible, and several plot lines about which we were concerned. So it was probably in the mix, but it would not have been the only thing in the mix.

It's our understanding that the president, because he had been briefed a number of times about this case on developments in the case, and because there were six Americans, which made it very unusual, asked questions.

Listen, the president asked very specific questions, not just about the Lackawanna group, but again, across the board, over time. Unfortunately, we've all become familiar with names and places and investigations.

We are winning. But I don't think there will ever be a single victory that we can point to and say, 'This is it. It's done once and for all.'

So if it wasn't about the Lackawanna group -- I know the president asked questions about that. What are the leads? Where they've been? Have we found any sources to corroborate it? What's their legal status? What's the plan in order to deal with these individuals?

But you can just take that mindset and that list of inquiries and transpose it onto hundreds of other questions that the president has asked about international and domestic terrorism and the specific things that agencies or individuals were doing to combat it. It happens here just about every day. ...

We're trying to get a sense that we have, let's say, from the FBI agents who were in the field in Buffalo, and also from people at headquarters in the Department of Justice, of, if you will, this tension sometimes about what are certain people up to. How dangerous are things? And this example -- the intelligence analysts were told, "Brief the president prior to your meeting about the group in early August," and basically concluded that this may be the most dangerous cell then in America. Do you remember anything like that being presented to you about characterizing these people or this group?

I cannot remember the characterization. I do remember because it was a focal point of the discussion in morning meetings for over a period of time, where everybody was engaged in -- the FBI was primarily engaged, but everybody was engaged in -- and concerned about what they were up to. I think if you went back and checked with the FBI, the knowledge and information they had about these individuals -- they were looking at these individuals for quite some time. The more they looked and the deeper they dug, the concern broadened as well. I don't think they looked at them initially and said, "This is a terrorist cell." They were looking at them legitimately for other reasons. ...

When you did declare that first alert, which was the anniversary of 9/11, a year ago, do you recall really what stood out in your mind? What made things so dangerous that you would go to another higher level?

Maybe it would be helpful if I explained the process.

Explain the process. Also, I think there's some mystery about how you come about with these conclusions.

Yes. I'd certainly like to demystify it, and thanks for the opportunity.

I think the first thing you have to say is it is as much art as it is science. There's never any clear mathematical equation that we can plug into and reach one result or the other. But the process really begins with the accumulation of information from a variety of sources, both international and national. As we prosecute the global war on terrorism, we get more and more information about terrorists, how they operate, where they operate, who they operate with, their financing, their leadership -- the whole nine yards.

But over a period of time, as the intelligence analysts and experts see different plot lines developing or hear from sources that they deem credible that may corroborate independently aren't much, but all of a sudden, as they check their information base and they find out that information has been corroborated, and they see this happening -- there comes a point in time where there's enough credible information and concern about potential attacks and plots that we begin a process that concludes with the president's Homeland Security Council sitting down and reviewing all of the information and making a determination as to whether or not they ought to make a recommendation to the president.

So this includes things like chatter?

Yes.

What is chatter?

There are a lot of ways you get information, and clearly there are some electronic means. But chatter, I think, is just a generic term that refers to sources. It refers to information that is generated by multiple sources. There's a lot of chatter out there. There's a lot of discussion, and it could [be] a lot of references, a lot of inferences about certain kinds of activity. More often than not, it's in code or guarded language. Rarely do we have the specificity that I think most people think is available to the intelligence community. These are real communications, more often than not are subtle, oftentimes very guarded, sometimes coded.

One of the toughest jobs right now in this country and one of the most demanding is being an information analyst. What's the wheat? What's the chaff? What's credible? What's not credible? Then how do we corroborate it? Because at some point in time, if there's enough there, you want to act on it. The question becomes, when is there enough to act on? When is there enough to send the FBI out? When is there enough to go to the president and recommend that you raise the threat level? It's a tough business, and it's as much art as it is science.

So a year ago you raised the threat level, correct? Which happens really almost at the same time that this group in Lackawanna--

Right. That would have been one of the plot lines we were watching, one of the groups, one of the reasons we would have been concerned.

You talk about actionable intelligence basically that's developed.

Right.

About two months after they were arrested, the ringleader of the group is identified apparently in the remains of a vehicle in Yemen that's blown up, we're told in press reports and by the Yemeni government, by a CIA Predator. It's the first time that we know of that an American citizen has died who is apparently a member of Al Qaeda.

[Yes.]

Was that a subject of discussion?

The death of this individual? Of course. Of course.

The fact that an American citizen has been killed in our counterterrorism war by us?

Correct. I mean, in your wildest dreams or your worst nightmares ... when you think in terms of American citizenship -- put political philosophy aside, everything else that nurtures this dynamic system of governance that we have -- it is still difficult to imagine that we have to accept the reality that someone could be a citizen of this country -- enjoy the freedoms, the opportunities, as well as the protections of this country -- and under the guise of citizenship and with the protections afforded by this country, work to potentially undermine the very system that protects them.

So I guess it's almost thinking about the unthinkable. But we'd be naïve not to think in a country of 280-some million people, that there might be those out there that would seek to undo even their own country.

I think the question out there in people's minds is, how are decisions like that made? To the extent that you can talk about it, if you could take us inside some of the, I would assume, emotional discussion that goes on about this.

Yeah. I think, for me, the decision to engage that vehicle or to engage militarily or using any military assets, those are decisions made by other individuals and other entities outside of Homeland Security. Make no mistake about it, I don't think anybody in the government, in terms of prosecuting the war -- as horrible as these terrorists are and the tragedy that befell upon us on 9/11 and, whatever we feel about them -- still considers it an easy thing to take somebody's life. But if that's what you have to do, under these circumstances of 9/11, to protect America, that's what we have to do.

The reason I raised the question also is that in the course of our research we don't see any other case like this. This stood out -- American citizens. One of them asked, when he was apprehended, about Buffalo Bills scores. In these meetings or in your discussions, particularly with the president, is there any discussion of how this could possibly be happening? You know, I'm looking for motivation. Do you have some sense of the motivation of these people?

I think there are a group of analysts that we have engaged -- and certainly there's a lot of counterterrorism, or terrorism experts out in the body large -- that have theories as to the motivation and the rationale and the justification for these terrorists, whether American citizens or not. That's a very important function. We need to better understand what they think and why they think it.

But the discussion generally is, how do we deal with that mindset -- not how we remedy it, how we change it -- the fact that it exists. Others work on it long term. Hopefully we can ameliorate the conditions or improve the conditions; some people don't think it's possible. But again, when we're focusing on these meetings, it's how you deal with the threat. ...

It's get them off the street or stop them or prevent something from happening -- that's the priority?

Right. Correct.

Let me ask you about the threat. We've asked this of a number of people, because there's some skeptics out there. Question: Is there any concrete evidence that Al Qaeda has a weapon of mass destruction? Chemical, biological, nuclear?

There is concrete evidence of intent to either make, purchase or even steal one of the above. But actually, there's concrete evidence about certain capacities that I can't share with you. There's no concrete evidence that they have possession of a nuclear bomb or anything of that sort. But we know --whatever the weapon of mass destruction might be, and they come in various forms -- there's no doubt in our minds if they had it they'd use it.

But they don't have one. They don't have a dirty bomb, for instance.

We don't have concrete evidence that they are today in possession of one. But we do have, [evidence] corroborated time and time again from individuals, that really speak to the aspirations of this organization that their goal is to secure them so they can use them.

Do you believe we are safer today because the Lackawanna group, for instance, has not only been apprehended -- in one case a member was eliminated -- and that they've been taken off the street?

That is probably one of the several hundred, if not thousands, of reasons I believe we are significantly safer today than we were on Sept. 12, 2001. That's just one of many.

Are we winning this war against terrorism?

We are winning on many fronts. We're winning in Afghanistan. We're winning in Iraq. We're winning domestically. We're winning in terms of making that international coalition that has been so helpful to us, expanding that coalition. Their apprehension and detention and interrogation of the terrorists has been very helpful. We're winning in terms of dismantling much of their financing. We've decapitated some of their leadership.

But having said all that, we're still at war, and we're going to be at war for quite some time. The very nature of how they set up this organization -- it's very decentralized, very patient, and the bull's eye [is] on the flag of the United States and our way of life. There's nothing that suggests that they haven't taken their focus off of the United States of America. In spite of the decapitation of leadership, in spite of the interruption of much of the terrorist financing and in spite of the efforts not only domestically but internationally -- ourselves with our partners -- they're still interested in America and American interests, both here and abroad.

Do you recall any discussion -- because we understand some did take place -- about, in the context of what to do about them, whether to make them enemy combatants, because we don't have enough information to take them off the street in any substantial way for petty crimes? Do you remember any discussions like that, in terms of people trying to decide what to do about them?

I remember the escalation of interest based on more and more information. Because, as I think you've indicated, it took a while. There were bits and pieces that they were pulling out about them individually and as a group. I'm sure, although I have no specific recollection, there was a question as to, at what point in time is all this information actionable? Does it warrant them being treated as enemy combatants? Is there enough to bring them in as criminals? Is there enough to bring them in as material witnesses? There was a conversation, and I can't recall the specifics.

Again, this is a country of laws. Part of what we try to protect, even in our war against international terrorism -- we might remind ourselves every day there is a Constitution. There are procedures that the law enforcement community must follow. So the whole question of status would determine what you could or could not do. So I do remember that being part of the discussions--

Well, they were American citizens.

Well, and thank you, and start with that. But there are even protections afforded those who aren't citizens. But, again, the question of status, and in this instance they were American citizens. But is the information out there enough to warrant them being treated as A, B or C? I mean that, and I don't recall. Obviously, they were apprehended and charged.

Right. But there, there was fear that they were out on the street from May until the anniversary of Sept. 11.

Right.

Would they do something?

Yes, but they weren't out on the street, meandering without somebody paying very close attention to what they were doing. ...

Some of the veteran intelligence people that we've talked to, some people and the Gilmore Commission have recommended that we create a separate counterterrorism organization, a MI5, if you will, that's not connected to the law enforcement community, that wouldn't even be connected to you guys at Homeland Security. Your reaction?

The president has basically made the decision to turn the primary focus of the FBI to counterterrorism. I don't think you're going to see an MI5-like agency in this country for a variety of reasons -- the most important of which is that the president believes that the FBI, under the leadership of Bob Mueller, can make that transition from a criminal investigative unit -- and they're still obviously going to be doing some of that -- but into the chief domestic counterterrorism group.

But are they doing that in sort of de facto? That is, creating a domestic counter intelligence operation in part by having the TTIC [Terrorist Threat Integration Center] as part of Homeland Security, where you bring together the CIA's counterterrorism people and the FBI's people, and, in a sense, de facto creating a domestic spy organization, even though technically we're not calling it that?

Well, no. First of all, the Threat Integration Center is not a collection agency. The only thing the Threat Integration Center is empowered to do is take a look at all the information out there from all the intelligence gathering sources. Again, we're mindful of the limitations, gathering information on American citizens. So, again, number one, the TTIC is the single venue where a group of analysts from the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, NSA, Homeland Security -- their sole exclusive function is to give the president and decision makers a comprehensi[ve] threat picture. If there's a need for additional information, they can charge the respective agency to go back and get it for them.

They're also charged with giving the Department of Homeland Security the benefit of their analysis. We are a consumer as it relates to hardening America. You know, protecting infrastructure.

So you've got this group of analysts, [who] obviously, in part, support the work of the FBI's counterterrorism unit. The FBI has their analysts; we have ours. Everybody still has their own analysts. And the FBI can go out and secure information, as long as it's consistent with the Constitutional laws of this country. But the Threat Integration Center is really an effort to aggregate and analyze the information, and then share it with the other agencies in government.

You say, as do many other people we interview, that this threat will be going on for quite a while into the future. In fact, the threat has led to the greatest reorganization of the U.S. government in decades. But there's been no attack. Some would say that you've exaggerated it, in a sense, out of political fear, that if it happens, you'll all go down in the next election. So this is just a political move to stop another attack.

Well, it's interesting, because I think long before the president sent his version of the Homeland Security Department to the Hill, there was strong bipartisan support for such an initiative. In fact, there were agencies even pre-9/11, given the rise of international terrorism and the accelerated use of this terrorism around the world. There were those who predicted we would not be immune to it, so we'd best consider reorganizing in one fashion or another.

Now, the president's reorganization, far more comprehensive than any that had been proposed, in fact, included some new units in science and technology units, so we could go out there and take advantage of the creative genius of this country, and come up with countermeasures to these weapons of mass destruction. There was a new strategic product that the president felt that we needed that no one had really embraced before, and that is create an analytical unit within the new department that would take the information that it gets from the Threat Integration Center and others, at targets in the United States, and make sure we've done everything to harden those targets and reduce our vulnerability. So I think it's pretty clear that strong bipartisan support for the concept of a department long before 9/11.

With all due respect, there are those who say that initially the president, [Customs] Commissioner Bonner at the time and others were against a Department of Homeland Security. It was only when apparently, some say, May came along in 2002, and you had Mr. Padilla and Colleen Rowley and various other things happening, that all of a sudden an announcement is made, that a 180-degree turn is made, if you will.

That is certainly not consistent with what I observed and participated in shortly after the president called me to Washington to serve as his special assistant. I remember vividly, within a week or two, in the Cabinet room, when the president assembled leaders of both parties in both chambers -- some of whom had been advocating a department, some form of reorganization, to deal with international terrorism.

The president asked their indulgence for time so that the new special assistant, me, could take a look at developing a national strategy, one of the tasks of the Executive Order [and] in the process of looking at the need and the development of strategy, to reach a conclusion as to what, if any, reorganization needed to be done and then to make a recommendation to the president. ...

So when people say this was a political move and it just resulted in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you will, is that accurate?

It's a mystery, or in and of itself it may be a political interpretation, because the president had assigned -- actually the vice president had been working and had pulled together a staff shortly after the inaugural, some months after the inaugural, to begin taking a look at how this country would combat terrorism. ...

We asked former head of counterterrorism for the FBI, how real is the threat from these terrorists? He said, "Well, it's more likely you'll be hit by lightning than you'll become a casualty in a terrorist attack." That's why we asked the question, "What's going on? It's the number one priority to the president. It appears every morning, every day."

Yes. I think there are a lot of analogies that you could draw. A number of people get killed in automobile accidents because they don't put on the seat belt even though we tell them to. The number of people who lose their life because they didn't get immunized during flu season. Being struck by lightning.

But at the end of the day, a terrorist act is designed -- and this is the new form of terrorism that we're combating -- is to bring catastrophic consequences in terms of either loss of human life, as well as economic damage. The other goal is to incite a fear and anxiety or an apprehension.

So the random, the tragedy of being struck by lightning, the tragedy of being involved in an automobile accident, whatever -- for purposes of comparison it's not a bad idea. But these terrorists are interested in inflicting massive harm, monstrous consequences and at the same time, move a free and open system and bring peril, paralysis and fear and anxiety to that system, that perhaps we forget who we are, what we stand for and how we treat one another. Basically, try to undermine our way of life. ...

I say this hoping that it's true. But when we go on the air, there hasn't been an incident in this country for over two years. Why doesn't the administration, why don't you take credit for victory? Maybe we are winning. Maybe they have, in a sense, as one CIA guy put it to me, shot their wad.

I don't believe that it's a question of that maybe we are winning. I believe we are. But I think all of us have a much longer view of this challenge as to be substantially longer than the next year or two.

We are winning because we have undermined their leadership and we have really created problems for them to generate the financing they needed. We have begun to dismantle some of the cells, not only in this country but elsewhere. We have a bigger and a larger and stronger coalition. We have done some things in this country, some rather dramatic things, to reduce our vulnerability to an attack.

Every day since 9/11, we have gone to a new level of readiness. Some of it's because of the federal direction and federal aid and hopefully, federal leadership. But states and locals have done things, the private sector has done things. We know that the terrorists pay close attention to security. We know that raising the threat level and added vigilance is a deterrent. They told us that. So you couple those things, and that maybe explain why we haven't been attacked yet. Maybe it's sort of divine intervention. I wouldn't mind having a little help there from time to time.

A bit of luck.

Or luck.

There are just a lot of things that come into play. We are winning. But I don't think there will ever be a single victory that we can point to and say, "This is it. It's done once and for all." It's just been, for literally well over a decade, almost two decades, this ferment, this agitation, this development of this form of extremism. It even continues today -- the calls for jihad, the religious justification for giving up your life in order to defeat the infidels.

It's going to be here with us for a while. The president very appropriately said it appears to be the newest threat in the twenty-first century, a permanent threat. So we better reorganize in order to deal with it. No doubt that we will prevail. But we improve our chances immeasurably if we rethink and redo how we combat it domestically. ...

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posted october 16, 2003

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