Tom Ridge, the nation's first secretary of homeland security, resigned Tuesday, leaving behind a mixed record. Although the nation is undeniably safer for the work of his agency, it is still "not safe enough," as Ridge has said on several occasions.
Ridge resigned as Pennsylvania governor in October 2001 to take the hastily created position of White House homeland security adviser in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Doing so put him in a situation politicians love to hate: a high-profile platform under the never-ending spotlight of media and national attention. Perform well in such a job, and you can write your own ticket; slip up just once, and you’re finished.
“We have to be right hundreds of thousands of times every single day,” Ridge often said of the mission assigned to his vast agency. “The terrorists only have to be right once.”
And for all the warts still clinging to the Department of Homeland Security, for all the vulnerabilities not adequately addressed inside U.S. borders, Ridge walks away with one undeniable truth: There have been no further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during his watch.
"Homeland security has never been about a department but the integration of a country," Ridge said Tuesday during a news conference announcing his resignation.
No easy road
Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and anointed Ridge its first secretary. The newly minted federal agency opened its doors in March of 2003. But nothing got easier with the official congressional stamp of approval.
Ridge was fond of saying that creating DHS by merging 22 separate federal agencies with a workforce of 180,000 rivaled the biggest corporate marriages in history. And like any such merger in the private sector, the largest government reorganization in U.S. history has had it share of hurdles, foibles and snafus.
Early on, Ridge took flak over what some saw as too-frequent raising and lowering of the terrorist threat level. He constantly fought internal agency battles as he wanted to be more prudent about elevating the threat levels, fearing the public would start ignoring the warnings. The threat level has been raised six times to a level signifying high concern of a terrorist attack during Ridge’s time in office.
Although few details are available about any real terrorist plots thwarted by proactive homeland security efforts, Ridge has said he believes such attacks have been stopped. When Ridge had the threat level raised for specific areas of the country, instead of the nation as a whole, right around the presidential election, some accused him of trying to politicize the office.
“We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security” was Ridge’s standard reply to such allegations.
There are still major parts of homeland security that just don’t work. Although Congress has budgeted some $40 billion for DHS for fiscal year 2005, some parts of the department are already putting their employees under austerity measures for fear of running out of cash.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, the largest investigative division in government, is one such unit. ICE agents, who are responsible for everything from busting up child pornography rings to shutting down human smuggling to plugging vulnerabilities at U.S. borders, have been told in some cases to wash their own bureau cars on their own time and to use money earmarked for paying confidential informants to buy gas.
The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees aviation security, has been a lightning rod for controversy since its inception. The TSA hired 60,000 airport baggage and passenger screeners so fast that it failed to adequately check for criminal histories. As a result, the agency fired nearly 2,000 people with such histories in their past. The TSA today still struggles with employee problems, including theft from checked baggage.
Perhaps the most disheartening failure for Ridge is his inability to oversee the successful consolidation of the so-called “terrorist watch lists.” There are a dozen such federal lists maintained by nine different government organizations.
These lists contain all the names and background material of known terrorists and their associates and are intended to keep the bad guys from crossing U.S. borders or getting on planes flying in and into the United States. Though information-sharing among the agencies that maintain these disparate lists has improved dramatically, the brass ring of a single, easily searched terrorist list still eludes the Department of Homeland Security, whose overarching mission is the security of U.S. citizens where they live, work and play.