Video: Secure Homeland

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updated 2/22/2006 3:36:20 PM ET 2006-02-22T20:36:20

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says America‘s ports are safe now than they were before September 11th, but says the Bush administration underestimated the political fallout over this Dubai deal. 

I spoke about port security with Tom Ridge, who served as the secretary of Homeland Security during President Bush‘s first term. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL':  Governor Ridge, you had the job of Homeland Security secretary.  You know the risks and the choices you have to make.  Is it a smart choice to choose economic advantage over security when giving a contract for port management? 

TOM RIDGE, FMR. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY:  Well, I think it‘s a false choice.  I don‘t think that they‘ve chosen economics over security.  The bottom line, Chris, is there is a perception that is far different from the reality around this contemporary controversy with regard to selling of the operational responsibility for these six ports on the East Coast. 

MATTHEWS:  When you think about Philadelphia, one of the ports involved from the state of Pennsylvania, where you were governor for two terms, do you think about the security there?  When you think about it, do you think it matters which company has title to the port facilities? 

RIDGE:  I think it‘s a very important question because the optics certainly for the average citizen and our colleagues on the Hill, nobody likes the optics, but that‘s perception.  The reality is that the state continues to own the port. 

They‘re not selling the port.  The state, in conjunction with the Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Protection and the law enforcement community, continues to handle all the security matters related to the ports.  So I think there is a difference between the perception of this contract and the reality as to who is ultimately responsible for security. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Some fellow in Dubai is making the call on who is senior management at the Philadelphia port.  Does that matter if that person isn‘t as keenly interested in security as an American would be? 

RIDGE:  At every one of these ports, Chris, there is a security committee that‘s headed primarily by the Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard has been given primary responsibility not only by the Department of Homeland Security, but by the Congress of the United States with regard to maritime security. 

And regardless of whether the individual in charge is casually interested, remotely interested, or intimately interested, regardless of his interest, he has to comply with the Coast Guard regulations and the maritime security procedures that not just the Coast Guard wants, but the international maritime community requires of all ports. 

MATTHEWS:  Of every 100 containers that comes into the United States through ports like Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, whatever, how many are checked for what‘s in there? 

RIDGE:  The last statistic, there were five to six percent of them are checked, but it‘s not a random selection process, Chris.  Because of the information that customs has secured over the years and Coast Guard, we score every container because we require the shipping companies to send the manifest to us 24 hours in advance. 

We match all that information against the database we have, and if we don‘t like the answers, if it doesn‘t score correctly, then we run it through an x-ray machine.  If we don‘t like what we see, then we open the actual container itself.  And that‘s done so that we make our ports the last live of defense.  All that‘s done under the Container Security Initiative in foreign ports overseas.

MATTHEWS:  You know, when 9/11 occurred, a lot of people thought that the box cutters that got on those planes didn‘t go through the metal detectors, they came in through the food supply.  Everybody is trying to figure out you could get the box cutters on, and one possibility was they came in through the food, that—the people that have the concession. 

If an Emirates government, a state-owned enterprise like Dubai Ports, owned that food concession, right, we‘d think wait a minute here.  Why are we letting Arabs decide what kind of knives and forks to get on the plane and whether to put a box cutter on the plane in somebody‘s little food container?  Isn‘t that a concern that somebody might be sloppy, somebody might be gettable, bribable that normally wouldn‘t be bribable if they were Americans? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think that‘s conceivably possible in any port.  But interestingly enough, Chris, one of the first Middle Eastern countries and ports to agree to our Container Security Initiative was in Dubai where they agreed for us to put Customs and Border Protection officials.  They agreed to buy the technology, basically the x-ray machines we have in the ports. 

And I say this.  We‘ve layered in many levels of security and, in time, I suspect that with the advance of technology in Dubai and all the ports around the world—and that‘s where you want your first check to be we‘ll have a much higher percentage of containers that are actually x-rayed before they‘re put on ...

MATTHEWS:  Could you defend this if you were governor of Pennsylvania?  Would you defend the administration in renting out our port facilities, our management of our port facilities to an Arab country?  Could you do it?  Could you defend it politically right now if you were running for re-election? 

RIDGE:  I think you can and I think you should, because there‘s a—I mean, politically, it‘s easy to jump on the perception because the process of the assessment within the administration hasn‘t been very well explained.  I was part of that process, Chris.  It involves the secretary of defense, secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the attorney general, and I suspect, on her way over to UAE, Secretary Rice.  And so it‘s not done by a couple low-level folks elsewhere.  It is done by multiple agencies, close scrutiny, look into background, take a look at how this company has operated ports around the world, not just with regard to our six domestic ports, and you make a decision. 

And I can‘t believe anyone would conclude that these six principals in this administration would do anything to compromise the security of this country. 

MATTHEWS:  So you have 100 percent confident in the process? 

RIDGE:  I am absolutely confident of the process. 

MATTHEWS:  Had you been on that panel, would you have OK‘ed this? 

RIDGE:  Well, I suspect I would.  But again, there is a lot of public discussion about information we don‘t have full grasp of, we don‘t have full control of.  Only the secretaries know that.  And I think one of the concerns that has been expressed by some of our—my former colleagues on the Hill, Republicans and Democrats, House or Senate, they need to know how thorough this committee vetted this transaction.  They don‘t know that yet.  And I think when people like Peter King say, come on, you‘ve got to come up and help me understand why this is not compromising security, I think that‘s a very appropriate request on his part and of Congress. 

MATTHEWS:  There are well over a billion Islamic people in the world.  Do you think if we knock this company out of contention here, if we void this contract, we are saying to those 1.3 billion in the world, whatever business you do, no matter how peaceful you are, no matter how free enterprise you are, pro-American you are, you ain‘t doing business with us because you‘re Arabs?  Is that the message? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think it‘s a slippery slope to conclude that because your country, there may have been a terrorist that went through your country or somehow they accessed a few dollars in your country, that would probably be excluding a significant part of the world, including some of our allies.  Let‘s not forget that some of these hijackers were in Germany.  Let‘s not forget our heavy dependence on Saudi Arabia for oil, and we know most of them were from Saudi Arabia.  So that simple connection should not be enough to disqualify the transaction. 

The answer should be—the question should be, have you compromised security?  Will security be less?  And I don‘t think, as long as the Coast Guard is given the mandate to take care of security, it will not be less.  They will continue to enhance it.  And I would say to my friends in Congress, if you really want to bolster security at our ports, give the Coast Guard a lot more money and let them hire a few more people, let them bring a few more boats to their port security effort, and you‘ll continue to enhance security in our maritime industry. 

MATTHEWS:  If you were giving political advice to this president, President George W. Bush, would you argue that he should hang tough with the Dubai Ports deal? 

RIDGE:  I think the president should hang tough.  I suspect he will hang tough.  But if I were called, I would certainly encourage them, not from a commercial or treasury point of view, but from a homeland security and defense point of view, to go describe privately the vetting process so that the anxiety level that‘s certainly been heightened politically because of everything that‘s been said, and some of it misinformed.

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