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Ridge steps down as homeland security chief

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced Tuesday that he was stepping down.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announces his resignation
Tom Ridge said Tuesday that he would to stay in his job until a successor was found as secretary of homeland security.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tom Ridge, the nation’s first homeland security secretary, announced Tuesday that he was resigning after three years of reworking U.S. security and presiding over color-coded terror alerts.

Ridge, the seventh officer to leave Bush’s Cabinet so far, oversaw the most significant government reorganization in 50 years. He will be remembered for his terrorist alerts and tutorials about how to prepare for possible attacks, including the controversial “disaster kits” that caused runs on duct tape and plastic sheeting last year.

Amid warnings that the country may face increased terrorism risks around the holidays and the presidential inauguration Jan. 20, Ridge said he would remain on the job through Feb. 1, unless his replacement was installed sooner.

Ridge acknowledged that he could not prove that the costly and complex security measures that had been put in place had foiled any terrorist attacks inside the United States, but he said the country was safer today than before the suicide hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001, killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

“I am confident that the terrorists are aware that, from the curb to the cockpit, we’ve got additional security measures that didn’t exist a couple years ago,” Ridge told reporters at the department’s Washington campus, which he helped create.

President Bush said in a prepared statement Tuesday evening: “His efforts have resulted in safer skies, increased border and port security and enhanced measures to safeguard our critical infrastructure and the American public.”

Ridge sent his letter of resignation to Bush at midday Tuesday after attending a morning White House threat briefing with CIA and FBI officials. Ridge thanked Bush for giving him the opportunity to fight back against terrorists, as did the passengers on Flight 93, who forced their hijacked plane down in a Pennsylvania field.

“There will always be more to do, but today, America is significantly stronger and safer than ever before,” Ridge wrote Bush.

Cabinet turnover
Ridge is the seventh of the 15 members of Bush’s Cabinet to announce that they will not be part of the second term. More resignations are expected; administration officials say Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appears to be next.

Among those mentioned as possible candidates to replace Ridge are Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who helped rebuild Iraq’s police force; Joe Allbaugh, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Mike Leavitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser.

Others are also believed to be interested in the job, including Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary of homeland security for border and transportation security.

Ridge leaves behind a department that is still learning to work together. Culled from 22 often-disparate federal agencies, the 180,000-employee organization still faces criticism over aspects of its massive government merger, including the coordination of finances to computer systems.

Ridge, consistently a defender of the department, stood by its efforts to warn the public of possible terrorist threats, saying it preferred to disclose more information than some officials believed was wise.

“That’s something we take pride in,” Ridge said. “America is prepared to deal with the reality of the post-9/11 world. It’s in our best long-term interest to share more information about the threat to America rather than less.”

‘An extraordinary organization’
Ridge, who is married with two children, said he intended to “raise some family and personal matters to a higher priority,” including attending his son’s rugby games.

In an e-mail message circulated to Homeland Security officials, Ridge praised the department as “an extraordinary organization that each day contributes to keeping America safe and free.”

In October 2001, Ridge became the nation’s first White House homeland security adviser, leading a massive undertaking to rethink all aspects of security within the U.S. borders in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Congress later passed legislation establishing the Homeland Security Department, with Ridge taking over as the first secretary in January 2003.

He has presided over six national orange alerts — the second-highest on the five-color scale — when the government boosted security out of concern that an attack may be coming.

Ridge, a politician by nature, fought criticism leading up to the presidential election from those who said he was using terrorism warnings to boost support for Bush. Ridge repeatedly said: “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.”

Ridge, who has spent 22 years in public service, came home from Vietnam, earned a law degree and went into private practice in Pennsylvania. He ran for Congress in 1982 and was re-elected five times.

He became governor of Pennsylvania in 1995, leaving in October 2001 after the White House called.

The six other Bush Cabinet figures who are leaving are Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Bush has chosen national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for the State Department, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales for the Justice Department, Carlos Gutierrez for the Commerce Department and Margaret Spellings for the Education Department.