JOHN HOCKENBERRY, for The Takeaway: Governor Ridge, Good morning.
TOM RIDGE: Good morning John. Good morning Celeste.
HOCKENBERRY: Thanks for being here. Let's just get the issue out of the way
that's dogged you on this book tour all along. The explanation of an event that you describe,
that took place just before the 2004 election. Let me just read the quote to you.
A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase
in the threat level and that was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for
that within our department. None. I wondered, 'is this about security or politics?'
Now you're describing a meeting that I think was controversial in the way it was
sort of revealed in the marketing leading up to your book tour. But I'm just wondering, that's
just a little naïve. In the Bush administration by 2004, wasn't it obvious that there was
political pressure from Rumsfeld and Ashcroft?
RIDGE: Well, no. Thank you for discussing the passage at the outset. I'm not
second guessing anybody's motives. I wanted to explain to the reader that that was the most
dramatic time that the group of the President's Homeland Security cabinet got together to
discuss raising the threat level. What the public generally doesn't know is that we had those
discussions on many occasions and more often than not the decision among the Secretary of
State and the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General and the CIA director, yours
truly, and a few others was not to raise the threat level. But since this was the weekend
before the general election, this was the year that a terrorist event in Spain had altered
that election, we were just unanimous in our opinion internally. So I mused at the end of
this section in the book, was it politics or was it security? Not to second guess my
colleagues, because as I say earlier in the book, there is no way, given the nature of the
decision making process, that anybody can pressure anybody. You don't go up unless there's a
consensus among this very special group of the president's cabinet.
HOCKENBERRY: Right. And I'm sensitive to the position that you're in there.
But, nevertheless, isn't it your job to make sure that American believe that when you raise
the threat level it is actually true, not just because Rumsfeld is looking at some poll
RIDGE: Oh, precisely.
HOCKENBERRY: So you have to push back.
RIDGE: That is ... well, no, you don't have to. Many other people in that
group shared the same view that I did. And at the end of the day, if you recall correctly, we
did not raise the threat level. I mean that was the beauty of the system. Unless there was a
consensus within that group, regardless of how strong one or two individuals argued to raise
the threat level, unless there was at least a majority then there was no recommendation to go
up. So there was no need to push back and we rendered our opinions. Nobody tried to pressure
anybody. My opinion was different. Secretary [of State] Powell's opinion was different. [FBI
Director] Bob Mueller's opinion was different. Therefore, we didn't go up.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Are you then saying, if I'm understanding you right, that
it's impossible to separate politics from it?
RIDGE: Oh, no. But I don't know what people were thinking, what was the
calculation. As you note in the book, there's a couple chapters where I talk about the
politics of terrorism. And after 9/11, I suspect as congressmen and congresswomen made
decisions, and as senators made decisions, and as other people in the government made
decisions, some nature of politics ... the whole question of terrorism became embedded in our
HOCKENBERRY: Right, right.
RIDGE: So it's very difficult to distinguish, to say it was done in
isolation. But to say that motivated them to argue about raising the threat level, I don't
HOCKENBERRY: Well, let's talk generally.
RIDGE: It was an interesting time. It was a dramatic time that we had this
discussion, but certainly not the only time. The system really worked well.
HOCKENBERRY: You describe in the subtitle of your book, "America Under
Siege," and then in the dust jacket of your book you suggest that it is actually really
important not to have a circle-the-wagons mindset in thinking about terrorism. Which is it?
Are we under siege or not?
RIDGE: Well, it's ... clear to me, someone who started not as a
counter-terrorism expert but certainly learned a great deal about it every single day, even
in the last day that I worked there, more about terrorism and counter-terrorism. That we
still remain under serious threat from a small group of individuals who are strategic in
their thinking, who do not set their wristwatches or their clocks to Western timetables. And
if and when they have a chance, and they do plan long-term, to strike the United States
again, they will. But I also say in the book that we don't need to be breathless about this.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was to convince people that the threat was real, but it
is manageable. We can manage this risk.
HOCKENBERRY: Let's talk about the legacy. Creating the Department of
Homeland Security was described as many as the most challenging inter-agency consolidation
that's ever been attempted by the federal government. You were set to manage the entire thing
and when you left office, I'm just wondering, a couple of things happened that really speak
directly to your legacy. And I wonder if personally you could respond to them.
HOCKENBERRY: First, there was this:
President George W. Bush:
My nominee to succeed Secretary Ridge has the background and the passion that are needed to
protect our citizens. As police commissioner on September the 11th, 2001, Bernie Kerik
arrived at the World Trade Center minutes after the first plane hit.
HOCKENBERRY: Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, and first Secretary
of Homeland Security, did it trouble you personally that President George W. Bush chose to
nominate, to replace you, Bernard Kerik, a philandering, corrupt politician from New York who
was a crony of Rudy Giuliani's?
RIDGE: Well, I'm not going to characterize Bernie Kerik. I don't know Bernie
Kerik. The President has the right to choose whoever he wants to succeed any other cabinet
member. I personally have always felt that someone.... I like Secretary Napalitano's choice,
I felt good about Secretary Chertoff's choice, I think both of those were excellent and I'm
going to leave others to comment whether or not it was a good choice of Bernie Kerik. I think
the President discovered, since Bernie apparently did not fill out the form completely or
accurately, that it wasn't a good choice. He moved on and made a good appointment with Mike
HOCKENBERRY: On the legacy question, quickly. The Katrina events that
happened after you left office, did they speak to an undoing of the work that you had done in
creating a Department of Homeland Security?
RIDGE: It disappointed me greatly. I think there was great incompetence
demonstrated at all levels of government. At the local level, state level and federal
government. I talk about it very specifically in the book. There were certain things that we
had prepared in the event there was a massive incident like this that weren't used. I still
don't think that the FEMA organization itself was at the root of the failure. I ... there was
some things that could have been done at all levels of government that certainly, certainly,
could have reduced the heartbreak that that community and so many families and people
experienced at that time. I spent an entire chapter on it.
HOCKENBERRY: Yes, indeed. And you write well on it. It's in your book. The
book is The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege and How We Can Be Safe Again, about the
tough job that you had as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Tom Ridge, thanks
so much for being with us.
RIDGE: John, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation with