Podcast Interview: Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

On this week’s Political Punch Podcast, we spoke to Department of Homeland Security’s first Secretary, Tom Ridge, whose new book “The Test Of Our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe Again” has drawn some notice and criticism. You can listen to the podcast on iTunes or by clicking HERE . The podcast was produced by Huma Khan and Lindsey Ellerson.

In his book, Ridge recalls wondering whether a push by Bush administration officials to raise the threat level just before the 2004 election was based in politics or national security concerns.

Ridge recalls a Cornell University study that found President Bush’s approval rating increased by nearly three percentage points each time the government issued a terror threat. He then recalls a conversation Cabinet officials had following the release of a video message from Osama bin Laden.

“On Friday, October 29, 2004, Osama bin Laden delivered a new videotape message that aired on the Arab language network Al Jazeera. The presidential election scheduled for the following Tuesday was tightening. The most recent polls had Bush leading Kerry by no more than two or three points. Having won my first congressional election by 729 votes and experienced the volatility of the election cycle during several campaigns, this race was literally a dead heat going into the final seventy-two hours,” Ridge writes.

"A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. (Attorney General John) Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld,” Ridge continues. “There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?' Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”

I asked Ridge to tell us about that conference call.

“It is a dramatic weekend. It is the weekend before the presidential election. It is the same year that there had been an attack prior to the election in Spain,” Ridge recalled in the podcast interview. “There was a reason for us to call together the president’s Homeland Security Cabinet – basically that’s about two thirds of the Cabinet -- to see if there was a consensus to raise the level of security and we raise the level of security when we change the threat level, so we felt very strongly there was no reason to raise it. Attorney General Ashcroft and Secretary Rumsfeld felt strongly that they should raise it – and again, these opinions were rendered back and forth on several times during a two year period whenever we saw something that was – that deserved discussion."

Ridge says that in the book "I ponder after it’s all over since, if I raise I’m the one that’s got to deal with the outcome and the states and everybody else and the consequence, 'Is it politics, is it security in the environment within which we’re operating?'”

He says that in the book “I’m not wondering whether or not Attorney General Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld are thinking anything other than security. We didn’t flip a coin to raise the threat level or to keep it low. We had a very thoughtful deliberative process and at the end of the day, while people are hyperventilating and trying to interpret what I wrote, the process worked, we didn’t go up and that’s what I mean to convey.”

“Is there any other reason that’s out there and perhaps this -- expressed it unartfully -- but I’m not suggesting that anybody in that room on that occasion or any other occasion was interested in doing anything other than the right thing to protect America,” he said.

Ridge, however, did point out a number of other decisions and tactics he did not agree with, such as the Republican party's 2002 Senate campaign against then-Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., that included a campaign with his face next to Osama bin Laden.

“After 9/11 – let’s be very clear about this -- the whole notion of terrorism and what to do about it and how to deal with it, priorities in combating it etc. became very much a part of our political scenario and in politics – particularly in this day and age -- everything is black and white, right or wrong, you or me. I like to think security is a lot of gray. It’s not as easy and it’s not black and white and at the end of the day some of the things we did right in the political world seemed to make sense to me and other times it didn’t,” Ridge said.

Ridge in the book also criticized the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program as unconstitutional.

“I believe the president felt from the a Constitutional point of view -- in terms of providing for the common defense, he had every right to move ahead to that -- to using that approach because the technology had outstripped the FISA Law – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” he said. “Everybody up on the Hill is saying, 'Well, you may interpret the Constitution that way but we’ve got a lawyer that says something else.'...I think they waited far far too long to engage Congress in the conversations.”

Ridge said the country is not any less safe under the new president but a lot more needs to be done in the security arena.

“I don’t think that President Obama fundamentally, in terms of the safety platform that we built to secure America, the relationships we have with the states and the locals, I don’t think that has changed. … I think we’re at least as safe as we were when he took over,” Ridge said, adding that there is “plenty of unfinished business.”

We also spoke to Ridge about the lack of intelligence sharing between government agencies, what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina, and much more.

You can listen to the podcast HERE or download it on iTunes.


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