Video: Is America safe

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge joined ‘Hardball’ host Chris Matthews to discuss the war on terror and the homeland security questions posed by the recent London bombings on Monday.

To read an excerpt of their interview, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS ‘HARDBALL’ HOST:  When you first heard about the subway attacks, the three of them and the double-decker attacks over in London, your reaction. 

TOM RIDGE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY:  Well, actually, I heard about it when I got off the plane having left London about an hour-and-a-half before, when we were talking with some of their counterterrorism officials just the preceding day, saying, because everybody is paying attention to what’s going on in Iraq, we still have to be mindful and vigilant back home. And my reaction was, as good as the MI5 is, and as good as the British domestic intelligence service is, obviously, this one escaped them. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you amazed that it is a clean getaway so far? 

RIDGE:  Yes, I am. But we’re only four or five days into the investigation.  They have got forensic evidence they’re pulling together.  This is a city that has got quite a few surveillance tapes, literally hundreds of witnesses.  So, I think we have got to give a little bit more time. 

MATTHEWS:  How hard is it, having been homeland security secretary, for 10 or 20 guys to get together and buy some dynamite and set some watches?  That’s all it comes down to, isn’t it? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think this demonstrated that, as good as your intelligence gathering capability is in your own homeland —and Great Britain has a great domestic intelligence service, it can be done, particularly, in a city that’s as cosmopolitan and as sophisticated as London. Even though they knew they had radical mosques and imams preaching their ideology of hate...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RIDGE:  You can’t keep your eyes on everybody.  And this can happen in a city of millions, of people that are very cosmopolitan.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  How do you stop these guys?  As I said, 20 guys get together. They plot. They say, who is going to get the dynamite?  We can get it for you?  At what step—if you were God and you could step in and say, we caught you, you’re all going to jail, would you have to step in? 

MATTHEWS:  Could you step in ahead of time? 

RIDGE:  Well, Chris, I think, ultimately, in order to intervene, interdict and prevent something like that, you have to have on the ground and — some kind of either electronic intelligence that identifies a potential perpetrator or you have to have human intelligence who says this is a cell.  Be mindful of it. 

MATTHEWS:  You have to crack it. 

RIDGE:  You have to crack it.  The Brits have done that on a couple of previous occasions.  But, obviously, I think it demonstrates, again, there are certain things you do in every country, in every community, to reduce the risk.  You cannot eliminate the risk, no matter what do you. 

MATTHEWS:  The president said today down in Quantico, at the Marine base, that we have been successful at interdicting a couple of these operations.  Do you know anything about that? 

RIDGE:  I think the president was referring to the FBI’s involvement and the Department of Justice’s involvement in several terror cells around the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, have there been dangerous operations that we’ve cut off at the last minute or what? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think the president is referring to the fact that we knew these people were engaged and connected with al-Qaeda, not necessarily getting them on the footstep of an operation, but serious enough to interdict and imprison. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s talk about defense and offense.  Let’s talk defense, because it has come up. When we get on airplanes, it can be time-consuming.  You fly, we all, or a lot of us fly.  We get used to it.  You wait in line.  You get to the airport early and you have to take off your shoes and they look at your feet and they frisk you and sometimes you get selected out.  And you say, OK.  That’s part of the price I pay. Will people pay that price to get on a subway? 

RIDGE:  No. I mean, I think we have to be realistic about the notion that it has been and will be vulnerable because of the massive number of people that use it.  You and I have run down escalators, run through the turnstile, running to get that train in time.  And the notion that we could bring measures of defense, similar to airports, in order to reduce the vulnerability in the mass system will basically dissipate and undermine the entire system.  So, there may be additional things we can do to minimize the risk somewhat more.  But we’re in a risk-management business.  If you’re going to have a mass transit system, with volumes of people heading to work at the last minute, you are not going to be able to put in the same kind of security protocols as you have in airports. 

MATTHEWS:  And everybody seems to have a strange package on the subway. I mean, everybody is carrying bags from shopping, school bags, workbags, and attaché cases.  Every possible kind of possession, they carry on to subways.  You can’t check them. 

RIDGE:  You can’t do it.  And again, I think there are security officials that have taken great steps.  There’s more surveillance.  There’s more undercover.  There’s more police, uniform police.  Maybe one of these days, there will be a miracle technological breakthrough and somebody can detect that you have got explosives as you’re running to the train. But, by and large, there are certain steps you can take.  They’re taking them.  There may be lessons learned.  They will take them as well.  But this will always be a potential point of vulnerability, given the number of people and the kind of system that you’re operating. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Explain the system between the British system and the American system.  People tell me that, in the British tube system down in the underground, they actually have surveillance cameras.  Do they? 

RIDGE:  Yes.  My understanding, they do.  They have surveillance cameras at certain parts of the metro.  But they have surveillance cameras throughout and around the city of London. 

MATTHEWS:  Can they match up pictures of suspects?  If they’ve got a guy who they know is on their watch list, are they susceptible—are they really that technologically state-of-the-art that they can spot a face and say, we got one of them on there? 

RIDGE:  I don’t know.  It would be an interesting technological breakthrough, though, if you had a camera taking a digital photograph that could automatically refer it to a bank of digital photographs and say, we’d better be watching that person. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Or the other way around, go from the bank, look for the person. 

RIDGE:  Exactly.  I’m not sure if they have that.

MATTHEWS:  Would the American people put up with such a system, a Big Brother system? 

RIDGE:  I think it is unlikely unless there was some way you could demonstrate that there was some oversight board, that the only—the only database that you were working against were known terrorists, and that’s the comparative piece that you were working on. 

MATTHEWS:  Or else people would be looking for their old girlfriend. 

RIDGE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  They would be using it for all kinds of purposes.  Let me ask you about the challenge of overseas.  We’re fighting a war in Iraq now. We’ve lost a couple thousand people, our people, 20-some-thousand dead over there.  Apparently, there’s a lot of people killed over there we can’t even count.  We’re making enemies all the time in Iraq, obviously.  We’re killing people.  That comes with the war. Are we reducing the terrorism threat here at home by going to war in Iraq? 

RIDGE:  I think in the long term, that’s the goal. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe it, though? 

RIDGE:  Yes, I do. I believe that if you can create within the Middle East some form of democratic self-rule, not institutions that necessarily look like ours, but some form of expression of self-government, some form of democracy, ultimately, in that venue, that is a repudiation of the ideology of hate and evil that obviously... 

MATTHEWS:  You really believe this?

RIDGE:  Yes, I do. 

MATTHEWS:  This is the neoconservative argument, because, if that’s true, how come we have elections in Iran that yield the most radical person as the victor? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, when you say democracy works, we have democracy over there that doesn’t seem to produce moderate leaders. 

RIDGE:  Well, we could take a look at the kind of election that they held. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RIDGE:  And when you disqualified 100 or 200 or 1,000 candidates, and—there may not have been a real choice there.  We’ve also had elections in Iraq and you’ve elections in...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RIDGE:  Elsewhere around the world that don’t really qualify as a democratic.

MATTHEWS:  But you think it is ideal—you think it is an ideal that can be achieved, that we can have elections that produce real results and moderate leaders?

RIDGE:  Well, I think it is an ideal that we should pursue, that it is a worth aspiration.  We’ve made that commitment to get it done.  And the notion at some point in time, the Kurds and the Shia and the Sunnis, and I believe the majority of them would like to live in peace. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Would they like to live together ... The reason I raise this and push this with you, Governor, is because the secretary of defense said we can’t count the number of enemies we’re creating in this war in Iraq, compared to the number of enemies we’re killing. ... Like in London.  They’re watching the newspaper.  They are reading the paper over there.  They’re smoking whatever they smoke.  They’re drinking coffee.  They’re saying, those goddamn Americans over there, they’re killing our people.  Let’s go to war.  Let’s blow up a subway here. 

RIDGE:  Well, but I think Iraq was not the first stage of the war.  The first was on September 11.  And I think the radical Muslim community saw the impact of that and it was just a matter of time until others would follow the aspirational goals, perhaps the inspiration of bin Laden. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

RIDGE:  So, whether it was Iraq or someplace else, London ultimately was going to be hit and other parts of the world were going to be hit. 

MATTHEWS:  You played goalie for America.  For how many years?  Three?

RIDGE:  About three, three-and-a-half. 

MATTHEWS:  All the three years that you were Secretary of Homeland Security, and before that, when you were basically the executive in charge of that, what did you go to bed worrying about every night?  What were you glad to leave to someone else when you left that job? 

RIDGE:  I think the biggest concern that I had tactically was its unpredictable nature and the fact that we’re still as open and as diverse as any country on the face of the Earth, and the fact that you have got 500 million people coming across the borders and God only knows how many illegally every year, but 500 million approximately.  And you got to go to bed every night thinking, there are cells here.  What are they plotting?  What are they planning? 

RIDGE:  We operated every single day that they were here. 

MATTHEWS:  And a lot of them carry phony I.D. 

RIDGE:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  States are issuing phony driver’s licenses to people every day of the week. 

RIDGE:  You know, at some point in time, we’re going to get our head around this notion that there ought to be some basic form of—and, again, the legislation that created the Homeland Security Department said no national I.D. card. 

MATTHEWS:  That was a mistake, wasn’t it? ... Well, do you think that was a mistake?

RIDGE:  Well, I think we’re going to evolve our way to one anyhow. 

MATTHEWS:  Why don’t we? 

RIDGE:  Well, the Congress said no.  But the bottom line is, is that the process is going to take us there, whether we want to be there or not, because you literally have millions of people in the defense industry.  You have these transportation worker identification cards. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

RIDGE:  That was in that legislation.  So, sooner or later, maybe it is just a common standard among the states’ driver’s license that’s everybody buys into that becomes a verifiable document, a breeder document that can’t be replicated. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Watch 'Hardball' weeknights at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,