A Conversation with Thomas J. Ridge

Monday, May 24, 2010
Former Homeland Security Secretary Thomas J. Ridge discusses his experiences as the first leader of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as other lessons from his career.

This session was part of the HBO History Makers Series.

JOSEPH A. KLEIN: I guess we'll begin. Welcome. I'm Joe Klein from Time Magazine, and a lovely evening here in New York. We have a gimpy special guest. He says the wound was self-inflicted.

THOMAS J. RIDGE: The most painful kind, political or otherwise.

KLEIN: First of all, I'd like to thank Richard Plepler of HBO and HBO. This is part of their History Makers series. So I know that many of you are going to have questions, as I do, about current events, about things that are happening right now, and I'm sure that Governor Ridge, or should I call you Secretary Ridge?

RIDGE: I like the governor. I worked hard to get that title.

KLEIN: Would be happy to answer those questions. But maybe we can try and do a little intellectual exercise of attempting to frame the question in an historical context. The other thing, the obvious thing -- I wish I was as clever as those ads that they have in movie theaters now, but it's now a time to turn off your cell phones. I mean, really turn them off. They shouldn't be set on stun or anything like that. Just turn them off.

And I'd also like to remind you that this meeting is on the record, which is how we like it. So let me just -- I'll introduce our guest, Thomas J. Ridge, aka Tom Ridge. Was born in Pennsylvania. He's a graduate of Harvard University, graduated with honors in 1967, which nearly, nearly makes him an official baby boomer. But because he wasn't an official baby boomer, he was a little bit more responsible than the rest of us, and so he actually went to Vietnam when he was drafted in his first year of Dickinson School of Law. And he earned the bronze star there, combat infantry badge, and the Vietnamese cross of gallantry.

He was elected to Congress in 1982, served five terms from a district that I came to know well because of a book that I wrote, out in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the northwest of the state which, for those of you who don't know it, is rock-solid working-class middle America. The salt of the earth.

Then he was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1995. He served two terms, and he was such a great governor that my parents decided to move to Pennsylvania from here to retire, and they now live in State College. All of it attributable to Tom Ridge.

RIDGE: We're so happy to have them, we gave them a couple of extra ballots too. (Laughs.)

KLEIN: He was -- now this isn't in his official biography, but he was seriously considered for vice president in 2000 and again in 2008. In 2000 he lost out to a man who turned out to have too much experience, and in 2008 he lost out to a woman who had no experience at all. I will be asking him what this means about the current state of the Republican Party during the Q&A.

But after that he became the first assistant to the president for homeland security, and I think in the role that is most important to us here at the Council of Foreign Relations, he was the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He served until 2005, correct?

RIDGE: Right.

KLEIN: And left under circumstances that were not entirely pleasant. But we'll get to that too. I'll ask a few questions and then I'll open it up to you, and I think that we'll be able to have an interesting time, especially since so many of the things that you were dealing with are right up at the top of the agenda right now.

But let's do a little biography first. So why did you allow yourself to be drafted, when so many people your age were getting out of it? And what were the lessons that you learned in Vietnam that you took with you through your time in politics and into government?

RIDGE: When I completed my senior year in college at Harvard in 1967 -- it's interesting, that same year I had the opportunity to spend time with Gene McCarthy, as well as the ambassador from Saigon, U Van Thai (ph) to the United States. You know, at that period of time it was like the war that was in another place. I'd always wanted to be an attorney, and it's now Penn State Dickinson School of Law. I was accepted, decided to matriculate. The first piece of correspondence I received was my draft notice.

My dad had served in the Navy during the Second World War. I knew a lot of my father's friends who had served in the Second World War. At the kitchen table as a young man growing up I always felt that there were certain responsibilities we had as citizens, so the notion that I would be drafted came as a shock to my father, who gave up -- who always wanted to be the lawyer in the family. Instead his two sons have become lawyers. But there was really no second thought. You got a letter from President Nixon you were drafted, and that's just the way it was. If you passed the physical, you were on your way.

I must admit, at the time I spoke a little German. I had one year of law school. Maybe, maybe in the back of my mind I think I could order a couple of glasses of beer in German. I thought maybe I'd be a legal clerk in Hamburg or Frankfurt somewhere during the Cold War. But as it turned out, I ended up being trained as an infantry soldier for a solid year, and if you could train me to become an infantry soldier, I think there's good prospects that anybody could be. I think I was a pretty good soldier.

So away I went. I did at Dix, and then I was at Ft. Polk. One of the first lessons I learned at Ft. Polk, I was the only college graduate in my entire infantry company. So one of the first lessons learned is if you're going to fight a war, those who are responsible for fighting the war should come from every strata of America, not just from the farms and not just from urban America.

The second thing I learned in terms of my experience in the Army, for me particularly, is you learn a lot about yourself personally. Any of you who have been in the service can appreciate that. If you've been in combat, you'll appreciate that. You don't dwell on it, but you do draw from it. I learned that more often than not the plans you try to execute don't go quite the way you plan on it, so you'd better have a back-up.

Very interesting, my experience in Vietnam -- and I'll cut it short because I know you have other questions -- I had a group of actually five people, that we worked with a Vietnamese infantry company so we're in and out of the villages, we kind of roamed in and out of the countryside. I've often thought that, again, we did what we were supposed to do as soldiers, but you wonder going back -- forget about the political commentary -- had we tried to help simultaneously with being -- having a military presence, tried to help build the institutions of government, and win the hearts and minds battle. And if they'd have had a leadership in Saigon that people respected and admired, if you had a strong central government, the outcome would have been different.

There's nothing I've done in my life -- nothing -- of which I'm more proud than I wore the same uniform as the men and women who wore it and who served in Vietnam. And I do draw -- from time to time I draw from it. I don't dwell on it but you know, all the political bullets that come your way aren't quite as lethal as the real thing, so you don't get too excited about that stuff.

KLEIN: I see Senator Goodman over here, and he came from a certain part of the Republican Party, and so did you. Why did you become a Republican? What was -- you know, why didn't you become a Democrat? And what happened to the party that you joined up with? Do you think you'd be a Republican if you were just starting out today?

RIDGE: Oh, sure. I've thought about that over the years, and frankly I go back to the dinner conversations I had. My dad always worked two jobs. He'd have dinner for 15 or 20 minutes and take a 15-minute nap, and then he'd go to his second job. Government and service was something that was often, frequently a topic of our conversation. My mother was a Republican committeewoman. My dad was a Democrat. And the one thing I picked up from the conversation is they both had a certain view of the role government should play. My dad thought that government generally should be directed toward those who can't take care of themselves -- the poor, the disabled. He thought there was a role for them in terms of the environment.

But they both stressed -- and this is why I became a Republican -- they both stressed personal accountability, that if I was given a good education -- and they truly did believe in the United States of America. It is about energy, it's about commitment and focus, and it's really up to you, as long as you get -- start from the starting blocks, that it's up to you to make your own success. There's no guarantee, so don't look at government to make you successful. They both felt that government had a role to help you at least get to the starting blocks fairly well prepared, Joe.

So I just became -- I registered at 18 to become a Republican, and I'm proud of it. I would like to see a 21st century Republican Party that actually accepts the big tent, that accepts the notion that diversity of opinion, even on some of the controversial issues, is not only tolerated but is accepted because there's unity around so many basic issues, particularly of the role of government, fiscal responsibility, competent (government ?).

I frankly take a look at what's going on right now and it looks like perhaps the extremes in both parties may end up even having greater influence in primaries. That's somewhat troubling, but I have been a Republican, a proud Republican. But some people look at my record, I was a pretty independent Republican. That's just the way I was raised. My mother was a Republican committeewoman. My dad was a Democrat with a certain view of where government plays a role or it doesn't play a role. So I voted that way.

KLEIN: The old adage is that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The Department of Homeland Security was a department that was designed by a committee, involving agencies from across the array of government. I guess you were involved in the planning of it as the president's adviser, and then in the execution of it.

Would you do anything differently about how -- about what it tends to? I mean, it deals with everything, as we know, from the oil spill in the Gulf right now to the bomber in Times Square. Was it too broadly conceived? Why -- just tell us a little bit of the -- how it happened.

RIDGE: It's a great question because the aetiology, the circumstances around the development of the department are not very well known or chronicled, but in fact there was a very intense period of time where a small group of people -- and I know, much to your consternation met without leaks -- and really went through a process, Joe, where we would say, if we're going to build a department that has to do with domestic security, where are the agencies that naturally fit when it comes to air, land and sea and other issues?

So to a certain extent you could say that it was kind of a storyboard. I mean, should the FBI be there? No. Should the air traffic controllers be there because they're part of an air traffic system? So it was a very deliberative process. At the end of the day you end up having 20-plus units of government, with five or six really muscular agencies -- the former INS, the former Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, et cetera. And FEMA. They very, very appropriately fit.

And the challenge was always, how do you integrate units of government that had their own IT, that had their own human resources, that had their own procurement, had their own budgeting? So the biggest challenge, and it continues today, was how you integrate the business functions at the same time you're supposed to be developing policies that -- as I used to say, Homeland Security played defense, and that one of the principles we applied was our last -- our borders should be the last line of defense, not the first line of defense. And how do you integrate some of those principles and work it hard with the Hill, who did not change their jurisdictional responsibilities.

When they built the Department of Defense after World War II, they also reconfigured congressional oversight. Yours truly, Secretary Chertoff and Secretary Napolitano are answerable to over 80 committees and subcommittees. Trust me, we're not whining. That consumes an enormous amount of time. And therefore, if you're trying to build a strategic platform and make critical tactical and fiscal decisions, you're dealing with multiple committees of oversight, who, by the way keep their -- have their biases and prejudices, with entities that pre-existed in other departments, but they still -- every once in a while they'll run around you and go to the Hill to protect their turf.

So I think the right agencies are there. Some people wanted us to have the FBI, but President Bush said absolutely not, and I agree with him. But my successors still have a real challenge in putting particularly the business line integration together.

KLEIN: One more management question, and this is --

RIDGE: I think you're going to get to it maybe with this one or the next one.

KLEIN: Well, you know, Ronald Reagan said that government was the problem. He said that in his first inaugural address. And, you know, that was pretty much against the prevailing philosophy of the Republican Party, which always, you know, paid more attention to management, I think, than Democrats did. Democrats pay a lot of attention to legislating things and inventing new programs, and then Republicans say, "How do we do this?"

But by the time we got to George W. Bush, there was an absolute antipathy to government, and sooner or later -- and you wound up with the former head of the Arabian Horse Association trying to deal with Hurricane Katrina.

Did you find, as a guy who actually governed very closely in your state in the '90s, that there was a difference in Bush administration and on the federal level when it came to taking governance seriously?

RIDGE: Well, one of the early criticisms of the department is you've got 180,000 people. But frankly, they were not new employees. It's not as if we were building -- people were, "You're building a new bureaucracy." No, we're not. We're taking existing agencies and bureaus and trying to build around a central mission that's critical to the safety and security of the United States.

By the way, I think it's grown 40,000 or 50,000 employees, so I don't know what happened. I mean, our job was to try to do -- frankly, with the exception of TSA, some Customs work, I really didn't think we needed more employees. They need to be better equipped and they need more and better technology, but that's another story.

I think it is the right mission. I think it's the right aggregation of capabilities, but there still remain a couple of problems. You still have a challenge for these men and women in the agency to get the information they need in order to execute on the game plan. Homeland Security does not generate intelligence, does not generate law enforcement. We are only as good as the information you get.

And one of the things we had initially was a clash of cultures. We're building the new entity. The Cold War regime, and within law enforcement and within the intelligence community is need-to-know. If you need to know, we'll tell you. We said not only do we need to know, but it may be a federal agency but it's a national mission. So we've got to keep our governors informed, our mayors informed, and other people. That was a constant challenge. And I think taking a look at some of the things that have happened over the past year, so it obviously still exists. They're not -- you're only as good as the information you share.

So I think it's the right group of organizations, right group of people. I just still think that they are -- they don't have the strategic partner they need in Congress. I suspect they're still handicapped somewhat by the absence of timely information. Far better than it was in 2001, but I don't think you have the fluidity and the ease by which information is generally shared so that the department and our partners, the governors and the big city mayors, et cetera, can act on it.

KLEIN: You said before that the job is to play defense. You were playing defense in an administration that was very offensive-minded.

RIDGE: No question about it.

KLEIN: When you look back on it now, how would you evaluate the Bush administration's strategy in this regard about homeland security? What mistakes were made? How do you think it could have been done better? What problems were there?

RIDGE: I think the president had in his mind that we needed a counter-terrorism effort within the United States, and for that he turned to Bob Mueller, who I think is one of the best public servants going. I had some problems institutionally with the FBI, but you're the tip of the spear. You have to go from that old fighting crime mission to the counterterrorism mission. I think they're still in transition. I still think it's tough for them to do that from time to time. We clearly were playing defense.

When it goes to the offensive effort overseas -- I'm not telling you this in hindsight. Part of it was based on my experience in Vietnam. Just general information that when we went into Iraq on, I think it was March 21st, 2003, I remember it for a couple of other reasons -- was that right, about March 21st? And there was shock and awe. You're talking to an old infantry staff sergeant. I thought shock and awe is about high tech weapons, and at the end of the day if you're going in to deal with a situation as I understood it, you're not going to achieve your goals because it's not about high tech weapons. It's about GIs and Marines on the ground. Took a couple of years but we finally figured out. And fortunately General Petraeus said, "We need a surge. We need more bodies. We need a different approach."

Again, not in hindsight, I think one of the real challenges we had is I think until we figured out that we just couldn't put people at Gitmo, that it sent a signal to the rest of the world that America -- who they want to lead, I believe, this effort against these terrorists -- I think we just finally figured out as a country that the world wants us to lead it but they want us to do it in a way that's consistent with our value system, and the notion that Americans would just take people off the battlefield and plop them down there and not adjudicate --

So I always thought it was never about location. It was about adjudication. It's all right to put them some place, but how do you determine they are to go there? I don't think -- even the president probably admits the strategy wasn't perfect. There were a lot of imperfections along the way.

KLEIN: The urban legend is that all those sorts of decisions were made in the vice president's shop and the rest of the Cabinet didn't have much role in making them. Is that the case?

RIDGE: I'm not in a position to answer that question, truthfully, candidly. I can't even opine on it. I know that --

KLEIN: Did you know this stuff was going on?

RIDGE: Well, I knew they were meeting. I just knew that I wasn't included. I mean, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Powell, and Vice President Cheney, there was this constant churning of ideas, and seeing all these people in the hallway and going down to the situation room to talk to the president. But people have said, is that a criticism of the president? I said, no. I had a mission. Whenever the National Security Council met, it required us to do certain things in response to decisions they made. I understood the decisions. I understood the directive. But I candidly can tell you that I was never involved in any go/no-go decision, or involved in any of the formulation of either the strategy of when, where, and how.

KLEIN: But I mean in terms of how the prisoners would be treated --

RIDGE: No, I was never involved in that.

KLEIN: You never knew anything about that?

RIDGE: I had a friend -- I'll just go back. I wrote a book called -- I'm not here to push the book, but I had a friend who --

KLEIN: (Inaudible) -- in the introduction.

RIDGE: I had a friend who was involved in the initial interrogation, and he came back to me and I'll never forget. We sat down. He came in and we spent a couple of hours. He said, "Tom, I don't think we ought to ever let some of those people off of Guantanamo, we should never -- and some of them, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time."

So -- and I do think -- and this is a message that I'd like to share, and I share with my friends, Republicans and Democrats -- we are held to a higher standard in this country, whether we like it or not. For 230 years, and more recently over the past probably, since World War II, we have had the tendency to, as we try to engage with the rest of the world, to talk about our uniqueness. Some people would say we were preaching. But there is an expectation that America confronts its enemies and deals even with the unique enemy of these terrorists and al Qaeda in a way that's consistent with our value system.

I've said before, if America is a product, the value system is the brand. We can't afford to diminish the brand. One of the challenges around Guantanamo -- and I remember doing a lot of TV at the time, et cetera. The angst that much of the world had vis-a-vis our presence in Iraq -- not all, but some of it -- was simply their disappointment that we as Americans had just picked people up, put them at Guantanamo, and seemed to be prepared for the first couple of years to just leave them there.

Now the good news is that it's only through our jurisprudence system, the First Amendment, free speech, the agitation by Americans in America, hey, we can't do that, that kind of changed our minds about it. Now I personally think we ought to have a national security court system. Put the FISA court in there. It's another purpose for another discussion. But I do think we need to be reminded as Americans that there's a legitimate expectation that we be consistent throughout, regardless of how difficult the task is, no matter how challenging the enemy is.

For a period of time it didn't appear to the rest of the world that we were being that way, and that created some problems for us. As you know.

KLEIN: Yes. So how scary was it doing your job?

RIDGE: Well, I wasn't authorized to be scared.

KLEIN: Would you walk in there in the morning and see the situation in the morning and say, "Oh my God?" What's the scariest thing you had happen that we don't know about?

RIDGE: I can't tell you. (Laughter.) Generically --

KLEIN: We won't tell. (Laughter.)

RIDGE: I think the greatest concern that my colleagues and I had was that we would not -- and this ran throughout -- that we would not have access to timely information that we could use at the time because throughout our tenure it was a constant challenge to pull information from agencies who got a lot of it. We will never be convinced that we got all that we needed. Perhaps it was serendipitous that we, for whatever reason, we didn't need it. But there was always a feeling among us there were certain agencies out there that knew some things that we should know and maybe that we should share.

So in a broad way the greatest anxiety, as I've said before, we weren't authorized to be scared but we were authorized to be anxious. Probably the most challenging moment, the doors opened on March 1st, 2003, and the day before that a group of people showed up to what was going to be our headquarters, the Nebraska Avenue complex, with a whole couple of boxes full of material. Everybody knew we were probably going into Iraq.

I remember the department was being set up as officially open March 1. They show up and it was Friday the 28th, and said, "You need a security plan, and build it in the next two weeks, that encompasses the states and locals, et cetera, et cetera, because we're afraid--" Their concern was if we go into Iraq there will be retribution, there may be indigenous cells that will cause havoc once we move. So that was an anxious three weeks.

The only other time was probably, in terms of the heightened level of anxiety, was in December of 2003. Very specific threats that were known in New York City. Remember, that was the time we canceled several flights over from overseas. Very specific threats directed to other cities. We sent people out. So for that two month, two week period, there was a lot of anxiety. But we didn't have time to be scared. We just had to work.

KLEIN: I have a couple more questions, then I'll open it up to you. When you look back on it -- actually, when you think about it today, why weren't we hit again? How much of it was us being good, how much of it was the al Qaeda strategy, just going for spectacular things? And when you think about -- I imagine you spent a lot of time studying the enemy and trying to think with them. What conclusions did you draw from your study of al Qaeda?

RIDGE: Over a period of time I think we were able to -- we looked different to the terrorists in '03 and '04 than we did in 2000 and 2001, just because of the certain security measures that not only the government had implemented and directed, but even the private sector implemented. Secondly, I do think that we over the years have been able to not completely emasculate their leadership, but we created some difficulty there, made it a lot more difficult to access money to support their programs. I think there's an element -- I don't think luck is a strategy, but I'd rather have it on my side than not.

As I think of al Qaeda today, I never said that I was a counterterrorism expert, but I've learned a lot along the way. I think it is probably more from a more rigid hierarchical structure that really had direct responsibility overseeing the nineteen hijackers and the planning and the equipping and financing, to more of mostly an inspirational entity that may have -- that is connected with multiple groups, Muslim groups who don't necessarily embrace the goals of al Qaeda, but who see violence as a means to an end. To that extent they provide logistical support, certainly inspirational support. Logistical. Maybe training, maybe money.

So I think al Qaeda itself as an institution has changed, the group has changed in terms of the organization in terms of relationship with these other extremist organizations. I still have in my own mind's eye the notion that they'd like to come back and be specifically responsible for another major attack on the United States. As I said before, luck's not a strategy. We lucked out on December 25th. We lucked out in New York City.

I think we've been lucky along the way. But I also think to give credit where credit's due. The corporate world, business community, and communities like New York City have taken responsibility of providing a more secure environment for their citizens so we look different. I know that's a long-winded answer.

Classic example, August of 2004 we raised the threat level -- interesting story -- for New Jersey, New York and Washington because there was a video tape, hard drive discovered by Pakistan. And we took a look at the video tape, saw it in terms of security, at the buildings that were on the tape as opposed to what these companies had done post-9/11, not with the federal government telling them to do things. It had changed.

So we look different, but I still think we should always anticipate another effort led by al Qaeda for one more big, major strategic effort in the United States.

KLEIN: So were there times that you can tell us about where, you know, the fate of the earth was in the balance for a few hours, or seemed to be?

RIDGE: No. I mean, it's a wonderful question because every day, the day was pretty much routine, at least when we started the day. Down the steps, hop in the car, 6:30 in the morning, whatever, get a briefing, get what we called the threat matrix. These are the threats we've received in the past 24 hours, this is kind of the agency they came from. From time to time we didn't know whether they were electronic, whether it was human intelligence, whatever.

And if you believed all of them, you'd probably have just gone back upstairs and said, well, you know, Armageddon, and why bother going to work? But you didn't believe it all. You separate the wheat from the chaff. And I must tell this audience and others, it's the most difficult job, whether the battlefield is Vietnam or Iraq or it's against the terrorists, situational awareness. What do you know? What's real, what's unreal?

And how the intelligence community puts together enough information you can act upon is I think the most difficult. It's at the center of combating terrorism. It's also the most difficult task. So I can't give you the answer you'd like to have.

KLEIN: Well, when you saw that threat matrix and you saw a particular threat and there were things that you needed to know more detail, at that point was the intelligence community cooperative?

RIDGE: Generally they were. And I will tell you, every morning, as I said, we'd go down the steps, read the matrix, go into the White House, get the briefing from the CIA, get a briefing from my own team at DHS. Then we'd wait outside the president's office. And only he and the vice president were there. Total recall of a lot of conversations we had in the past. Oftentimes the president would insist on additional information depending on a particular threat. Occasionally either he or the vice president would say, "Well, weren't we talking about this three months ago? What have we learned since?" So it was a constant interchange with the president and vice president. Constant sharing of information.

It's so much more than the threat. Is it a credible source? I mean, have we heard something from this individual or group before that has proven to be correct? Have we corroborated it? Is there somebody else out there that's credible? Do they really have the means or the capability? Let's look at the target. Is the target vulnerable to that kind of attack? What's the likelihood?

There's an equation there. It's not a science. It's an art. And if you take a look at all those dimensions, and then you look at the threats you got every day, you say to yourself, "Probably not. Probably not. Unlikely. No chance. No chance." But every once in a while there would be one that jump out at you and you really have to dig a lot deeper.

KLEIN: You know, as a resident of this city, in the time after September 11th I think one of the scariest things that many of us went through was the anthrax. Have you got any theories? Who did it?

RIDGE: Well, look, I was governor for six years, nine months, and five days, and that October 5th I take the oath, and on October 8th they've already had one anthrax attack, and the next two weeks we've got them in the Senate, we've got them at journalists' desks. The poor Post Office under Jack Potter is trying to figure out what to do. I need to get the mail out, but if I irradiate it I'm going to burn it all so nobody get any mail. So it's all going on.

I have no theories. All I would just share with you is that I know that the FBI expended enormous resources, probably hundreds of thousands of man-hours domestically and overseas, and I'll let history and historians be the judge of whether the individual that committed suicide was the perpetrator, or he was a sole perpetrator because I don't know.

KLEIN: Okay.

RIDGE: The FBI seems pretty convinced. I don't have an opinion.

KLEIN: Last question. There was some controversy when you left. It was over -- well, maybe you can describe the controversy, and tell us a little bit of the story of how heated did it get between those who wanted you to escalate the threat levels and you.

RIDGE: The controversy with regard to the threat level was really occasioned by my book cover rather than what I read in the book -- wrote in the book. There was a notion that somehow it was a political calculus when we raised that threat level. You probably all remember. It's multi-colored. It could have been colors, it could have been numbers. It could have been anything, letters of the alphabet.

But I remember coming down from one of those press conferences with Bob Mueller and John Ashcroft as we said, "The threat today is greater than what it was yesterday. Be alert. Be aware, and have a good day." Didn't make a lot of sense.

So we decided to design a system that would actually be built upon a series of security measures that would be automatically put in place if you went up or down. And also to give the general public a sense of where the president's homeland security group was on a particular issue.

Neither the president nor I could raise a threat level unilaterally. Whenever we raised the threat level, there had to be a consensus among the following group: State, Defense, CIA, FBI, Justice, Homeland Security, a couple of other Cabinet agencies. We would look at the information after their deputies looked at it, and if there was a consensus within that group, I would go to the president and recommend that we raise the threat level.

The controversy, frankly -- (coughs) -- excuse me. And I did talk a little bit about it in the book, was when we raised the threat level right after, around the Democratic convention and people thought that was politically motivated. And I'm just here to tell you that, one, it was really directed on the tapes that were discovered. It was limited to the three communities. So when leaving the White House had -- it was nothing to do with political pressure to raise the threat level.

If there was any disappointment about leaving the White House and my position, it was that we had worked real hard on building a regional structure. This is probably more for business school than for your folks, but I always thought that if it's a national mission, we ought to take homeland security and drive a lot of the component parts down in the regions.

We divided the country into eight regions. By the way, New Orleans was one of them. So that we would have outreach to four or five governors and we'd do oversight, we'd do a lot of things. I was told I could do it, and I was told we'd have to wait until after the election. And after the election I was told, well, the people in the White House want to take a second look at it. I was out the door anyhow, but I might have stayed if they'd let me embed the regional structure because I still think they need it.

I just want to make it very clear: at no time was the threat level ever raised unless there was a consensus within the president's Homeland Security cabinet. And what you do not know is we met more frequently and decided not to raise the threat level than we met to raise the threat level. I hope that clears it up. It may or may not. Who knows?

KLEIN: Okay. Well, I'm going to open it up now, even though I could press you a bit on that last point. You know what the rules are here. There are people with microphones. You stand up, if you can. You state your name and your affiliation, and then you ask a question as opposed to making a statement. If you make a statement, I will be brutal and cut you off.

One additional thing that I would add here is that I've been under the historical restriction. You are less so. If you want to frame your question in historical terms, so be it. If not, so be it. You're in charge. Questions, right here. Alan.

QUESTIONER: Alan Blinken, the Washington Center. Governor, an issue that is more than perking these days is immigration and the border. I'm going to ask you to speculate. If you were the president of the United States, what would you say about immigration reform and the border?

RIDGE: Well, I would say to this president, you have inherited 25 years of inaction. It is the third rail of politics these days. You are the president. It's a solution -- it's a problem crying out for an answer and a solution. I'd say to the president if he would call, and I would welcome a call, I'd like to help you solve it.

I think that we need to enforce it, but I also think that we need to build a -- we need to figure out a way to legitimize the presence of those that are here. I think the impracticality, the delusional notion, delusional notion that we can identify 12 (million) or 14 million illegal immigrants and send them back home, you figure out how many 747s it will take us and the time it will take us. Legitimize their presence. It's not citizenship. Legitimize their presence. Build a biometric base -- I'm a strong believer in biometrics -- so that employers could hire from within that base. And you have to have very severe penalties for people who hire outside of it.

Continue with the enforcement. I mean, I for one don't understand why we're waiting to build some big complicated system. We have UAVs, we have ground sensors, photo sensors. Give Customs and Border Protection a few more Blackhawk helicopters, give them some detention. I mean, I don't think we have to wait to build this wireless border. I think we could enhance enforcement considerably.

Then I think we have to go to President Calderon and say there's a mutual responsibility. We'll do our part to let your citizens come back and forth across the border to work. We realize we're not shipping 14 million people back. We've got to bring some common sense and try to solve it. But you have to help us protect the integrity of our border and the integrity of our immigration system.

The president's in a tough spot. At least President Bush tried. He got slammed down by a lot of members in my own party, and I think the Hill -- my party, the Democrats -- they need a healthy dose of practicality and quit playing politics with the issue. It will not go away. The status quo doesn't solve anything. I voted for amnesty back in '85 under Reagan. The promise was we'll go back and build a system. So I just regret.

It's a huge problem for America. There's security implications. I mean, the governor of Arizona, listen to what's going on out there. One out of 10 prisoners are illegals. One out of six kids in school are children of illegals. One out of three people without health insurance are illegals. And all she's trying to do is something the federal government hasn't done for 25 years, and that's enforce the law.

Whether it's constitutional or not, I don't know. I personally don't like "reasonable suspicion." That's a concept that I have trouble with. The big take-away from Arizona is 25 years of inactivity in Washington. Somebody's got to be bold enough and brave enough and hopefully charismatic enough and smart enough. I'd like to see the president try to meet folks halfway. I mean, the D's want to talk about citizenship. The R's all want to talk about enforcement, enforcement. There's got to be some middle ground. Inaction, the status quo doesn't solve the problem. It just gets worse. Long-winded answer. I'm sorry.

I'm fed up. I mean, it's out there. It has existed for 25 years, and at least President -- I want President Obama to try. I mean, my guy came in second. I'm a McCain guy. There's no silver medal. But I want this president to try, and frankly, if he could find some middle ground, he's got Republicans like me who would like to help him. Because it's not going to go away so it needs a solution.

KLEIN: Yes, in the back.

QUESTIONER: Hello, governor. George Stamas. How's your golf game?

RIDGE: Pennsylvania guy. He's a plant.

QUESTIONER: Actually I'm a Marylander posing as a Pennsylvanian. Back to politics for the moment and your political roots. What lessons to be learned from the election to succeed John Murtha, and what does it mean for November?

RIDGE: I don't think the Democrats ought to be quite ebullient about his victory, nor do I think my Republican friends ought to read too much into it. Admittedly he's pro-gun and pro-life and, you know, those kind of things that you normally associate. But he also was one of Jack Murtha's closest and most trusted aides. And at the end of the day the people in Jack Murtha's district really respected and liked Jack. So I don't think either party ought to be too quick in drawing too many self-serving conclusions from that election.

Legitimate to see the platform one, where he is philosophically, which would seem to be more from the Republican side of the aisle. But I don't think you can discount the affection and respect that people in this congressional district had for Jack Murtha. Jack was -- listen, I'm the Republican governor, but from time to time when I needed some help on some issues down in Washington on the other side of the aisle, he's one of the guys I'd go to.

I think there's a lot of respect for Jack, so I don't think either party ought to be drawing too many self-serving conclusions one way or the other. I think he's going to be tough to beat in the fall, too.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for your remarks, Governor. They were very illuminating. Having been on the Hill --

KLEIN: Would you identify yourself.

QUESTIONER: Oh, yes. Roland Paul, a lawyer. What recommendations would you make to make better what is a very bad -- the Congress. And I don't mean just the Republican Party and this Congress, but you said you had 80 people that you report to. I mean, some of it's not their fault but some of it is. The Congress does not function very well to serve our democracy.

KLEIN: Can I follow on to that?

RIDGE: Please.

KLEIN: And it relates to the last question. You just said that in 1985 you could vote for something that was accurately described as amnesty. Can't do that now. You have to call it some weird complicated name that someone like Frank Luntz comes up with. What's happened over the last 25 years? Was Congress dysfunctional when you were there? Why have things gotten so uncivil?

RIDGE: Everybody has a theory. Let me give you mine. May be as good or as bad as everybody else's. Tip O'Neill was the speaker. What was on his lips was in his head and in his heart. No question about it. Irishman, liberal guy. He was who he was. My leader, Bob Michel, decorated World War II vet, conservative guy, Illinois. They were friends. Chris Matthews tells me that from time to time, once or twice a week Tip would have Bob Michel in, talk a little bit about the agenda. I know they played golf together, and I know socially from time to time they'd have a drink together.

So there was a certain civility that I like to associate with the individuals, but I'm wondering if it was a civility out of that generation, where people could differ but they were respectful in their differences. And is the challenge we have now as much as the political culture and the general social culture, where there's got to be an edge to everything, an extremist side to everything?

The other sense I have is that the people in the House of Representatives were beginning to make redistricting -- it will never be a science, but there's an art form that creates congressional districts that are not -- that are closer and closer to being monolithic in terms of ethnicity, philosophy and things of that sort. I don't think that's healthy.

Now, mixed-marriage Tom. Mom's a Republican committeewoman, Dad's a lifelong Democrat, probably the moderate to conservative. Okay. My district originally, which I won by 729 votes, was like 40,000, 50,000 more Democrats. Now that didn't make me independent. I think I'd like to think I was independent. I mean, one of the most favorite expressions, and I forget the British salon that said it, but what you owe your constituency is your best judgment. That's what you owe them. Not just taking a poll and vote what they think. You owe them your best judgment. I think that this redistricting has made it easier for people just to -- I'm not sure we're thinking our way through this.

And the other thing I really regret is that it just seems to me -- and this is both sides of the aisle -- that political victories are more important than solutions. That's not healthy.

KLEIN: I'll take my moderator's prerogative here and tell a Bob Michel story. He's a wonderful, wonderful man, who always attributed much of his success to the fact that he had a Crown Royal distillery in his district and would use it to lubricate members of both parties.

RIDGE: Very good Manhattans, but it never had an impact on me.

KLEIN: I once asked him this very same question, the question that you just asked. Why the change? How did it change? Was there a moment that you saw it coming? And he said, "You know, when I came to Congress, members of committees would meet pretty much in private with the audience in the back, but along long tables where Democrats and Republicans had to face each other. And when you have to face someone, you deal with them differently from when you don't have to face them.

When television came in and the banquette system of committee hearings came in, where all of the Democrats were over here and all of the Republicans over there, Michel said, everybody started playing for the cameras. And that was the moment that he knew things were going downhill.

Then Newt Gingrich came along and he really knew things were going downhill because Gingrich wanted his job.


QUESTIONER: (Off mike.) Still with the council. Continuing that, one of the historical facts that does correlate with that time period is roughly the end of the Cold War, and there is an argument that the Cold War was a component that at least -- around which consensus, Democrat and Republican, left and right, more or less agreed over a period of several decades. How would you connect that perhaps?

RIDGE: Well, I think it's probably, in terms of the atmospherics, in terms of the environment, the fact that there was a general consensus that we had to deal with the Soviet Union was very helpful, a general consensus that we were really united after World War II, united behind the Marshall plan.

And remember, the halcyon days of America -- I mean, nobody else was making widgets, gidgets and gadgets. We were driving the economy. We began to assert -- I think generally we became the hegemonic power that we became from the military point of view and economic point of view. And there was that consensus.

And I don't think -- it's more about civility than consensus. And how do we get back to -- immigration, I need to go back to the example because it's a classic example. George Bush tried to no avail. This president for whatever reason may be a little bit gun-shy. But the fact of the matter is, America understands it's a problem.

Now you've got different points of view about immigration. Now, I've been down on the -- I've seen these young men primarily in the detention cells. While I think there's a potential security problem because that same network that can bring in contraband, drugs and illegals can be used to bring in terrorists. I understand that. No evidence, contemporary evidence that it is a source, but a potential source. But they're not coming in here to blow us up.

They're going to lay asphalt in 120-degree weather, they're going to take the bags to your room, they're going to drive cabs, they're going to pick strawberries, they're going to do a lot of hard work. By the way, jobs that have been available for a long time but nobody else in this country was filling them. They filled them. So I kind of get it.

And I also understand the resistance that communities have when illegals come in and all of a sudden enormous additional costs, social disruption. And frankly there's an element of organized crime associated with it that has changed some of these communities. I get that.

What I don't understand is, all those dynamics together, why we can't find common ground. Because 2010 will be here, they're not going to touch it. Then the excuse, well, we've got to wait until 2012. It's the third rail. Well, you keep waiting and the problem continues to persist. And I regret -- and I'll also say this, and I don't want to offend anybody, but I don't think we should be so arrogant to think that everybody comes into this country that wants a job, wants to become a citizen. There's a lot of people -- the Schengen agreement in Europe, people go back and forth across the borders all the time to work. It's a little different.

So let's try to figure out a way to legitimize their presence, build a pool where they can be hired lawfully. Punish the daylights out of any businessman that hires outside the pool, and go talk to President Calderon, who misspoke -- there's been a lot of mis-speaking over the last couple of weeks, I guess. Interesting word.

We have not criminalized migration. We've criminalized illegal migration. There's a huge difference.

KLEIN: Down here, and then I'll come back to you, and then I think we'll end.

QUESTIONER: Judith Rodin, Rockefeller Foundation. Governor, great to see you. We didn't talk much about your time in Pennsylvania, but you were a great governor and it was fun working with you (when I ran 10 ?)

My question is about Denny Blair and the role from which he was just unceremoniously ousted. The pundits are saying that that's a role that is impossible, that it's an implausible role. Just as the construction of DHS may have been a sort of implausible construction, so is this. What's your view, and how do you think in the ideal sense it would and should operate?

RIDGE: I don't believe -- I have no inside information. I guess the next DNI would be, what, the fourth in five years, or the fifth in six years, something like that. I don't believe the DNI can be effective unless he has the full, unquestioned and complete support of the president of the United States to do everything the legislation directs him to do, and that's to oversee and set intelligence priorities, budget priorities, and the like.

As I've observed what Blair's been confronted with, interestingly enough he has not been out as the voice of the administration, a lot of intelligence issues. John Brennan, a man who I respect on the National Security Council, has been out. The few public arguments that have surfaced in Washington between the CIA and the DNI he's lost. Eric Holder, the attorney general, seems to have, at least from an observer, perhaps more sway over how to deal with some of these issues than he does.

At the end of the day if some of those people over whom you've theoretically been given some responsibility and some jurisdiction are favored from within the White House, then you can't possibly do your job. I mean, I just -- I saw unfortunately the game of politics, the notion that a man of his distinguished career somehow had lost confidence -- the White House had lost confidence in this extraordinarily patriotic man, I found it offensive that they would characterize his service, they lost confidence.

So at the end of the day, why couldn't he do his job? I don't think that's a job that could be done unless the president says to everybody in the room, "This is the guy. This is the office. That's it." And I don't know who they're going to find to take it.

KLEIN: Last question in the back. Peter.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible) -- journalist. You spoke a little bit about this before, but the DHS color-coded system, security alert system became something of a punch line among some people. Do you really think it make Americans safer?

RIDGE: Oh, it's a great punch line. In my book, "Test of Our Times," some of the best lines I heard on the night shows were around the color-coded system. Like, orange is one level; red, you'd better hide under the desk; and fuchsia, Martha Stewart's taken over, that kind of stuff.

It served a very real purpose, and I still think it serves a purpose, although I've talked to Secretary Napolitano of changing it, of modifying it a little bit. She's reached out to me on several occasions. I called her the night before that she was announced and said, "Secretary, there's only two people in town that know how tough your job is, and I don't normally speak for Michael Chertoff, but if you want some inside, call us."

We need to do two things. We could not continue to go in front of the nation with John Ashcroft and Bob Mueller to say, "We've looked at this intelligence and there's some stuff out there we think is real. There's some intelligence and some information cause us enough concern to alert you. So be alert. Be aware. Bye." That didn't have much traction after the third press conference.

So what we needed to do was tie a system, colors, alphabet, numbers, to levels of very specific preparedness so that orange means this, red means this, yellow means this. So to that extent, over time it has served its purpose.

One of my failures, I think, as secretary was I never was quite able to have the public understand that raising the threat level was not a unilateral decision. It was the president's trusted advisers who had a consensus that we should -- and they looked at the information that we needed to raise it. So did it make us safer? I don't know. Were there security measures that we finally embedded -- it took a while to do it -- that were in place that have discouraged an attack? There's one other expression that is very helpful, and it's not kind of trying to avoid accountability, is you don't know what you don't know.

But I do think tying the numbers, the colors, whatever it is, to very specific measures that people should do, organizations should do, government should do, that's very helpful. We think -- I think we said to Secretary Napolitano -- five or three, doesn't make any difference. I still think you need to have the president's -- I'm not even sure if this president has the same group together for that purpose, but we still think you need it. You may not need as many, but make sure that every step is tied to very specific measures, so if you say it's this color, then that means everybody has to do very specific things to add security.

KLEIN: Does anybody have a burning, deathless last question? Because if not, we'll -- then we will.

I'd like to thank both Governor Ridge and Secretary Ridge for being here with us today. I think on behalf of all of us I can say that you're the kind of guy we want to have in government. You're one of the people who really cares about government and governance. Thank you very much.

RIDGE: You're welcome. Thank you all. Thank you. (Applause.)







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