Tom Ridge is the former Secretary of Homeland Security, the first to serve in that capacity. Previously, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania.
How did 9/11 impact the way Americans think about defense and national security?
Prior to 9/11, I suspect that most Americans felt, with great justification, pretty much immune to threats from the rest of the world. I mean, we were protected north and south by great neighbors, and east and west by great bodies of water. But after 9/11 the scourge of global terrorism, which they had been obviously watching and observing happening elsewhere in the globe, suddenly became real to them. So I think it changed our mindset; not only an appreciation and an understanding, which we are still getting with regard to the threat of global terrorism, but the fact that the United States of America had become a battleground and that for the foreseeable future we would no longer be immune from similar attacks. It changed our way of thinking vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
As traditional threats seem to decline, where would you say terrorism ranks these days?
One of the probably most significant historic notions that most Americans probably didn’t realize, was that terrorism is just a tactic. It is a way you challenge authority. It is a way you challenge those who really don’t share the same belief system. It is a way to try to unsettle or disrupt activity, or frankly overthrow governments or value systems. And it has been around for hundreds of years. So I think Americans now appreciate the reality of the 21st century. It may make them long for the good old days of the Cold War, where the primary concern and focus was on the Soviet Union.
And now we’ve seen that it’s not just al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism. There are a lot of wannabes and look-alikes around the globe, and there are other terrorist organizations similar in nature obviously employing many of the same tactics that disrupt activities around the world, much of which are contrary to our interests and our values. You’ve got Hamas, and Hezbollah, and the Islamic Jihad, and the list goes on and on; and the Yemen and the Sudan.
And so I think in the post 9/11 world when we are conscious of the threat of terrorism, I think that we now understand that it’s more than just Al Qaeda. I think that we do finally understand, regrettably, that it’s a global scourge and that it’s not going away for a long time. The number of incidents in the U.S. has been one, Fort Hood. We’ve got lucky on a couple occasions. The skies over Detroit we got lucky. New York Times Square we got lucky. Luck is not a strategy. But since 9/11 we’ve been more aware of the threat, more aware of the consequences, and we’ve become a lot more vigilant. We’ve demonstrated out resilience, and we are forever on the lookout for similar threats.
How has the way we are taking on terrorism changed, especially in the last few years?
The United States confronting the horror and the sacrifice, the disbelief and the anger associated with 9/11 really had no playbook. There was really no reason for us to have anticipated in an organizational way that we should be doing things differently in response to what they call an asymmetrical threat. There was just no reason for us to do that. Since that time, it’s not just the Department of Homeland Security, but the linking up with law enforcement, the global community, the intelligence community worldwide; because at the end of the day, the homeland security mission was primarily playing defense. The real challenge associated with combating global terrorism is to get the actors before they act so that our borders are the last line of defense, not the first. So getting more information and using that information to take action in faraway places, the CIA, the military, and elsewhere; obviously that’s something we now focus on and do quite well, not perfectly, but do quite well.
How significant is the threat of cyber attacks from both state and non-state actors? And whose responsibility is it to protect against those attacks?
There are multiple threats that I think this country confronts in the 21st century, and in many ways certainly the most consistent, persistent and potentially disruptive threat is a cyber attack. Potentially dismantling your financial service system, having an impact on utilities, I mean across the broad; invading Department of Defense infrastructure. So the fact of the matter is that ubiquity of the internet is its weakness and its strength, and we have been and will be under permanent attack. Not just by some traditional college hacker looking to see if they can breakthrough the firewall; but by corporate espionage, our friends and our foes that ping us, as well as organized crime and terrorist organizations. So it’s with us, permanently I believe. For that reason it is critically important that the government and the private sector, which basically is responsible for supporting the entire infrastructure that runs government, it’s critically important that they collaborate, they communicate, and they share information; so that together the government, along with the private sector, can deal with this ongoing, permanent, day-to-day sometimes hour-per-hour threat and to both our civilian and defense infrastructure.
What threat is posed by bio-terrorism and biological attack?
People have often asked what keeps me awake at night and I remember within a couple months after I was appointed Assistant Secretary of the President I was asked that question. They asked me, “Do you sleep very well?” and I said “I don’t sleep much, but I sleep well.” And the reason is I had a good view of what the country was doing, literally what hundreds of thousands of different people were doing. But if you try to distill the threats that should continue to concern us most, Weapons of Mass Destruction and those that I think that — if you think about Armageddon, if you think about their deployment, the worst deployment would be a biological contagion — that even if we were able to identify; didn’t have the kind of requisite antidote or vaccine to deal with it, or the kind of distribution system we need to make sure that everyone was vaccinated and immunized. And the other: given the proliferation of nuclear capability, not only the nuclear threat in terms of a bomb per se; but the other, maybe greater, concern would be the dirty bomb. When you have this expended enriched uranium, the terror associated with those two weapons, I think particularly the contagion, would be disastrous in terms of human life, but just the notion of the a nuclear dirty bomb not a great deal of a loss of life but the contamination associated with it and the horror associated with any device of that nature – the two are should be of which we are most focused and I think we are in the post 9/11 world.
Who is responsible for protecting the population against biological attack?
I think there is a joint responsibility. One of the interesting characteristics of homeland security is some people think it is a federal mission because it is a federal department. But in fact, homeland security is a national issue. I mean, everybody has got a role to play, whether it is cyber — I mean there are basic things that every PC owner should be doing to limit access to their device. Again, with any of these others, there is a role to play in terms of the citizens being aware and the scientists being engaged. When it comes to a biological event, we need the public health community working in collaboration with the private sector, as well as the public sector. Everybody has a role to play in making us as secure as possible. I think we demonstrated since 9/11 that we’ve stepped up to that responsibility, but the fact that an event has not occurred should not be interpreted as that we are out of the woods. It exists, it will continue to exist, and we are no longer breathless about a potential attack of any kind. We don’t need to be anxious. But every day we cannot be less vigilant, and every day that something doesn’t happen, but there is more science, more information, more ways that homeland security professionals, the military, law enforcement, the intelligence agencies based on that science or that technology or that information make us a little bit safer the following day.
Are we spending enough on homeland security and how do we gauge how much is enough?
The question of money is obviously, during difficult fiscal times, is very appropriately raised. Although, I think we have to say to ourselves, “is the money we are spending being effectively spent?” And I would say today, generally, it is. We’ve made some mistakes in terms of some of the technology that we’ve acquired for us and we will continue to make mistakes.
But I think that by and large the level of funding needs to be sustained, particularly in the homeland security area, I’m talking about the department. And it is my belief that the department doesn’t need any more human personnel. The dollars going forward should be spent primarily on better technology; be it at the airports, the cargo in the underbelly of a plane, be it access nationally to biometrics — which is certainly an area that both the public and private sectors I think could use more effectively. So it’s really a matter of more technology, which in the end may mean a little more money, but I no longer think we need to identify the need or fill the void with people. It’s the 21st century and technology will make us more safe.
Is there a possibility that interventions around the world can affect our safety here at home?
Well the interaction with our president, primarily, and the rest of the world, I think, primarily has to be ongoing. I think it has to be personal, it has to be sustained, and it has to be intense. I think that the President of the United States has to be engaged on a personal level with the leaders around the world; friend and foe by the way. Now, when it comes to the question of military intervention, again it has to be very selective. The only way you can make that decision is by assessing where the event or events may be contrary to America’s value system, perhaps even at the margin to our interest; but it doesn’t mean that at that particular time we need to commit our men and women to some kind of military solution, whether direct or indirect. I think those judgments have to be made on a case by case level. Make no mistake about it, there will be times in the future, there is no doubt in my mind, the President of the United States, regardless of party affiliation, will feel that it is absolutely imperative to protect America’s interest. And remember, you want to make our land borders and our sea borders to be the last line of defense. I’m absolutely convinced that sometime in the future the President will say it is important for us to intervene over there; to make sure the tidal wave, that jihadist group or its activity doesn’t land in the U.S. and cause death and destruction on our soil.
Where does the Department of Homeland security fit into the whole system? Is part of the Department of Defense?
The history of the Department of Homeland Security — and many will write about it, I took a modest attempt — is that there were a lot of people in Washington D.C. that did not believe there was a need for the department to start with; which meant that although the president believed in it and the congress passed it, some of the other fellow agencies were skeptical in regard to its utility. I think they demonstrated their capacity and their ability to collaborate with these departments. And I remind everyone that in the 21st century world, absent even a 9/11 attack; the notion is that in an interdependent, interrelated world, you need to have some form of border centric agency so that we can monitor the goods that come across and the people that come across because of the forces of globalization, pure and simple. We are interconnected so we better be a bit more careful who we let in and out of this country. Having said that, these agencies that were brought in together had historic missions that were really important to the country and on top of that we layered almost a kind of a defensive position. And I remind everyone else that homeland security is only as good as the info they receive to act upon it. And that’s why even today, a decade plus after September 11, 2001, information sharing among agencies at the federal level and then down to the state and local levels is probably the single most important component or characteristic of making the country safer and more secure; and still a decade plus after there are still some challenges associated with that information sharing. There has been tremendous progress; homeland security is comprised of the right agencies and the right groups, because their old missions and new missions dovetail. But they can only be as effective as the information that they’re given. And at some point in homeland security, going back; it’s a federal department but it’s a national mission, so from time-to-time the governors have to know, big city police chiefs have to know. And I think we have demonstrated that in the past ten years, that when we collaborate and communicate and when we trust one and other — no Cold War mentality, you know a need-to-know mentality does not work in the world of global terrorism. We have to share that information because at the end of the day, the first people on the scene are the first responders, the locals; and we have to make sure they’re equipped with the knowledge they need to make their community safer.