National Security

Ridge Reveals 'The Test Of Our Times'

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Tom Ridge served as the United States' first head of Homeland Security after September 11, 2001. He unveiled the color coded threat level system in 2002. In his memoir, The Test of Our Times, he wonders if officials tried to manipulate that system for political gain.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On 9/11, Tom Ridge was the governor of Pennsylvania, and he found a way to get the site of the crash of one of the hijacked airliners in a field outside of Shanksville. A week later, the president of the United States offered what he describes as the most thankless and the most rewarding job in government, first in the White House, later as the first secretary of Homeland Security, the department drawn from all or parts of 22 units of government, including the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, parts of the Justice Department and Customs, responsible to secure borders, seaports and airports and coordinate domestic response to attacks and disasters.

Tom Ridge served in that position until 2005. Now, four years after he left, he's written a memoir about his time as the domestic security czar. If you'd like to speak with him about the color-coded terror alert system or the work of the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, or the politics of terrorism and what we need to do to keep our country safe, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Kim Masters joins us to talk about her father, who was a real Inglourious Basterd. But first, Tom Ridge's memoir is called "The Test of our Times," written with Larry Bloom. And Secretary Ridge joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, sir.

Mr. TOM RIDGE (Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): Neal, thank you for inviting me on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: And I'd like to read you the lead of a story run by the AP a couple of days ago: Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says pressure from fellow Cabinet members to raise the nation's terror alert level just before the 2004 presidential election helped convince him it was time to quit working for President George W. Bush. Is that accurate?

Mr. RIDGE: That just proves you shouldn't believe everything you read. It's not. One, my decision to leave was pretty much known by the president when he asked me to take the job on in the first place. I told him, fairly confident, I would leave after the end of his first term. And secondly, at no time was anybody able - because of the system we designed and approved by President Bush, the system we created in order to raise the threat level meant one, that no one individual could raise it, and two, that the security would be always at the center. And politics couldn't be used to raise it, either.

CONAN: Well, let me read now from your book. You're describing a meeting. This is just before the election. A new tape had come out from Osama bin Laden, very threatening. A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. Attorney General Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. There was absolutely not support for that position within our department, none. I wondered, quote, "Is this about security or politics?"

Mr. RIDGE: That's an accurate quote, and thank you for reading it. It is the only time in the book that I talk about the process that we used in order to make a decision to raise the threat level. It's the only discussion where I mention the parties, and there are other people, obviously, involved in that discussion because the Homeland Security Council comprised about two-thirds of the president's Cabinet.

During the course of that discussion, it was very similar to discussions we probably had at least, I think, probably eight to 10 other times during my tenure as secretary. The interesting thing is you don't know that we had them until I just told you because more often than not, as a result of the discussion and the honest exchange of opinions among the members, we chose not to raise the threat level.

So at the end of this, it's a dramatic - listen, it's a dramatic weekend. It's the weekend before the election. People really charged - some people feel very strongly we ought to raise it in the aftermath of what happened in Spain earlier that year, when a terrorist event changed the outcome of the election.

I'm using, in this book, we don't think we ought to go up. So I say to myself in the book: Is it politics? Is it security? People have interpreted that as me second-guessing my colleagues. As I said before, we had this discussion eight or 10 times, and nobody, during the course of any of those discussions, do I believe - one, you couldn't pressure anybody else because it was designed for people to vent their opinion, but no one felt anything other than to make an honest judgment, a tough call based on security, not politics.

CONAN: So the recommendations of Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft, you think, were based on their honest assessments, and not based on politics.

Mr. RIDGE: Correct. Correct. I mean, and again, the drama, when you think about it for a moment - I mean, you can define politics in a lot of different ways, but the drama - we are a couple of days out from a national election. I'm thinking in my own mind in - you know, earlier that year, the Spanish national election was affected by a terrorist attack. We've got to do the right thing here. We've got to protect our ability to go to the polls, but we can't overreact to the intelligence.

Look, we had, I think, 18 or 20 either audio or videotapes that we listened to from time to time, either from bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, his number two, and you know, we did not raise the threat level 18 or 20 times during my tenure.

I mean, you look at those and you look at other intelligence, and you make a hard, difficult, tough call. That's what Secretary Rumsfeld did. That's what Attorney General Ashcroft did, Secretary Powell, Director Mueller, etc., etc. But we did that eight or 10 times. The process worked, and politics was not involved.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question about another instance, and the Department of Homeland Security did raise the alert level in August, 2004 for the financial industry. This was only in parts of the country. Even though you acknowledge in your book the information about that threat was years old, you perceived the threat level was warranted to be elevated. It was then lowered exactly one week after the election. People look at that timing and say, wait a minute. That wasn't political?

Mr. RIDGE: Well, you know, it's - I'm glad you raise that, because people have asked me do I have any regrets during the course of my tenure as secretary, and on that one I do. Again, we had a similar discussion in August, once the Pakistani intelligence service found a hard drive, and they had surveyed the New York Stock Exchange and a couple corporate buildings here and in northern New Jersey and I think the World Bank down in D.C. And again, the same group got together.

We all expressed our opinions, and there was a consensus, and Fran Townsend went in and said to the president, Mr. President, the consensus is we raise the threat level, but not nationally, just in these three communities. So we did.

On my way out to hold the press conference, because I was assigned the responsibility of making that announcement, it was suggested that I laud the president's leadership in the effort to combat terrorism. Now, I had raised the threat level a couple of times before, and I never mentioned the president's name because it shouldn't have been mentioned. We were talking about raising the threat level.

So at the last minute, hurried, I got the press corps waiting. All right, I'm going to put it in. I regret using - while I wanted to the laud the president and in the political world, during an election cycle you would do that, it wasn't my place to do so. And in doing so, I created a sideshow that created an impression that truly didn't exist.

We had made our decision, made our decision about raising the threat level after the same kind of honest discussion, and no one was responsible for creating that problem other than yours truly.

CONAN: And just to get back to it one more time, was the decision to lower the threat level exactly one week after the election, that wasn't political, either?

Mr. RIDGE: Well, it wasn't an election. Remember, it's in August of - it's between the two…

CONAN: That's when you raised it. You lowered it one week after the election. You took that threat alert off.

Mr. RIDGE: We only raised it, Neal - correct the record…

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. RIDGE: …we raised the threat level in northern New Jersey and New York City and in Washington…

CONAN: August.

Mr. RIDGE: …in August. And the - I can't recall when we pulled it down at this time. I do believe we pulled it down much before the election, but I'm not 100 percent certain.

CONAN: We'll double-check our facts on that and get back to you.

Mr. RIDGE: Yeah. That's right. But it's a good point. But it wasn't - after the election, we didn't raise it nationally. We raised it surgically, particularly around five buildings that were subject to a tape.

By the way, when we called the CEOs and when I called Mayor Bloomberg and when I called Governor Pataki and a whole bunch of other people, they said it makes no difference that this surveillance tape might have been taken in 2001. They're our buildings. They're our communities. They're our employees, and we take it seriously, as they should.

CONAN: Okay, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Tom Ridge. He's the author of a memoir called "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege and How We Can Be Safe Again." He's joining us from our bureau in New York.

If you'd like to get in on the conversation to talk to him about his time in office and how we keep America safe: 800-989-8255. Email is Let's go to Mark, and Mark's with us from Littleton in Colorado.

MARK (Caller): Hello, Mr. Ridge.

Mr. RIDGE: Hi, Mark.

MARK: I'm a frequent traveler for many years. Since 9/11, I probably traveled about a half a million miles. And I can't count the number of times I've seen the 80-year-woman walking through with her walker being screened, secondary screening with a wand or, in one case, my own son, my five-year-old son had to be screened with a wand. Would we not be more productive and potentially more safe if we did the least bit of profiling and focused on targets as opposed to every single person walking through the airport?

Mr. RIDGE: Oh, I think you raised a couple very important questions in your question. There are a couple of different areas we go. One, I think TSA has dramatically improved its sense of customer friendliness and doing a pretty good job.

By the way, I have been pulled aside for secondary screening, and you're not going to believe this, almost two dozen times, particularly the first couple years afterwards, when I was switching flights from time to time on private or personal business.

Listen, I think the challenge with the TSA is that until, as a country, we are prepared to manage the risk rather than treating everybody as potentially a risk, we're going to see that. And that calls for a political decision that the screeners would say to a five-year-old boy or an 80-year-old woman, the prospects of the boy or the older woman being terrorists are pretty remote, run them through the metal detector, but no secondary screening.

But we don't have that mindset yet. I talk about that very specifically in the book. We shouldn't be breathless about this risk. We're still in the cross-hairs of these terrorists. They're strategic planners. They're long-term thinkers. We'll be able to manage it. Every day we should be better prepared for it, but we also need to accept the notion we can never totally eliminate it, and in that process, think about managing it more carefully.

TSA is a classic example, and there's not a TSA screener in the world, or any TSA leader that wants to be called in front of a congressional committee because the young child - that something happened on their watch. But I do think we ought to give them greater flexibility and greater discretion. Until we are able to manage the risk, they'll never have that discretion.

CONAN: If it was just the profiling, perhaps the shoe bomber would have gotten through, as indeed he did.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, and I think at the end of the day, one of the challenges - he did get through, and I think that's one of the challenges we still have. And it's a great point that you raise, Neal, in this country, is the technology of detection is still at a stage where we probably won't be able to manage the risk like I want to. But in time, our ability to detect explosives and bio-agents and radiological materials, we'll get that. I mean, I know there's a lot of companies small and large working on it, but we've got a lot of great people out there. We just have to get them better technology to help them do their jobs.

CONAN: We're speaking with former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge about the decisions he made after 9/11 and the ongoing push and pull between security and civil rights. If you'd like to join us, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Tom Ridge was named director of the Office of Homeland Security shortly after the attacks of 9/11. He went on to serve as the country's first secretary of Homeland Security from 2003 until 2005. Today, his memoirs are out: "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…And How We Can Be Safe Again." You can read about the conversations he had with Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft just before the 2004 elections on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to speak with Secretary Ridge about the color-coded terror alert system, about the politics of terrorism and what we need to do keep the country safe, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can join the conversation, also, on our Web site. That is at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go to this email from Ryan, who's a - describes himself as a former Coast Guard officer. What was - Secretary Ridge, what was your opinion of peeling off the Coast Guard legacy missions, like icebreaking and Aids to Navigation into a private or separate government agency like NOAA? It seems like the Coast Guard is going in the direction of a more police-like or military security force mission profile. There are many in the service who would prefer the traditional, more benevolent missions of search and rescue, icebreaking, buoy tending and environmental response remain the service's primary focus. I, for one, lament the more aggressive stance my former service has taken, such as permanently mounting automatic weapons on small response boats.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, first of all, I've got to admit publically that I'm a Coast Guard groupie. I think that they are the most under-resourced, underappreciated, multitasked organization in the federal government. And I hope one of these days a couple members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate become their champions and give them far more money and resources that they need to do their jobs. Secondly, I don't think we ought to take the traditional missions away from the Coast Guard because they've got the equipment, the skills to do it. What they need are a few more men and women in the Coast Guard, a few more ships to do that job. So I don't want them to be dismantled. I just want them to be properly resourced.

And that's frankly - I'm glad he asked. As I take a look at the way ahead and make several recommendations to policymakers, and one of them is very clearly understand what you have in the Coast Guard. Fund them. Don't take away their traditional missions. They do it better than anybody else. Just fund them correctly so they can do that mission, as well as the new mission of helping provide greater security to America.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ricky, Ricky with us from San Jose.

RICKY (Caller): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. Like I said, my name's Ricky, and I wanted to thank Mr. Ridge personally for the job he did, and to make the statement that it's because Mr. Ridge and the men and women (unintelligible) I have the honor and the privilege of raising my family and owning a business in the 10th largest city, and I get to go to bed every night, feeling - I mean, safe in the knowledge that there are people who have our interests at heart. I mean, it's a selfless job, and the work you did, I admire it. And I think a lot more people like me are out here than maybe you sometimes hear. So…

Mr. RIDGE: Well, thank you for your kind words. What I try and explain in the book, and it gives me an opportunity, if you don't mind, Neal, to just give you a quick snapshot. We were the new agency, and this is - we're almost on the football season, so pardon the analogy for you non-football fans. But if the NFL said next year you're allowed to have 12 men on offense and 12 men on defense, think about what happens in terms of shared responsibility, communication, etc., etc. Well, we already had a group of very capable Cabinet agencies and capable Cabinet leaders. And if you took a private poll, I daresay I'll be at least half of them thought that the new department was a bad idea. They weren't opposed to Tom Ridge, but obviously, when President Bush says we're going to build the department, we build it, and they all salute and move on.

But at the end of the day, the struggles that we had and the tensions we had weren't personal. They were bureaucratic. You've got this monstrous government. People have old ways of doing things, old relationships. We look to do things a little bit differently and establish new relationships. Were there tensions? Yes. Were there workarounds? Yes. I chronicle in the book, getting people to share more information: big challenge. Getting people to understand that the states and local governments would be our partners: big challenge, etc., etc. At the end of the day, the team - as this gentleman just pointed out - I think, did a good job. Actually, I think they did a marvelous job because homeland security was the mission of all of us, but at the federal government, we try to protect the tangible things: people, places and things. And we try to protect to the intangible: privacy, civil rights and our brand, our value system.

And in the scheme of things, we admit to stubbing our toe from time to time, but the verdict, I think, is a very positive one. It was a job well done by literally hundreds of thousands of people.

CONAN: Ricky, thanks…

RICKY: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, that - there's a quote someone forwarded to me in an email that other day about good men being able to sleep safe in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do what it takes, right? And it's something that I can point to for children as a lesson.

CONAN: Ricky…

Mr. RIDGE: Thanks, Ricky.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

Mr. RIDGE: Yes, sir.

RICKY: Okay, bye.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Phil, Phil with us from Fredericksburg, in Virginia.

PHIL (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

PHIL: You can (unintelligible) the background noise here by leaving the loud room. Your opening discussion about the color-coded system I think was completely disingenuous. And I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing more about this, but it seems to me that the question isn't whether it was raised or lowered, augmented or diminished for political reasons. The entire system was political. It was never attached to behavior. It never suggested do this in certain circumstances. It was never anything more than a crafty manipulation of fear, and that you wasted, in that administration, so much energy on whether it should go up or down, is just to me significant a symbol of how inept and ham-handed that administration's entire approach was.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, I don't think there's anything I can say, sir, to respond to that characterization of what the president did, what I did and everybody else in the administration did. I'll just remind you, sir, that on our watch, never happened.

PHIL: That's not true. You never figured out the anthrax.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, that's another story. But I will assure you, sir, I don't know you and you don't know me. But that whole system was designed - you can condemn the system, but the fact of the matter is people who had various responsibilities to keep you and your family and your community safe, from time to time, at the direction of the president, met. He did not have a vote. We met and discussed the intelligence periodically. But my intelligence chief met every single day, and sometimes a couple of times a day to sort through all the stuff that was out there. And the fact that during my tenure we only raised the threat level, I think, four times in over a two-year period, I think, flies directly contrary to your notion that we used the threat level for purposes other than to keep America safe.

CONAN: Phil, thanks very much. We do, by the way, have a copy of a press release issued by the Department of Homeland Security on December - November 10th, 2004. Today, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the U.S. government has lowered the threat level for the Financial Services Center in New York, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C. from high, or code orange, to elevated, or code yellow. So that, if memory serves, was just about a week after the election.

Mr. RIDGE: You are correct. Well, in other words, I mean, again, the same discussion's made. You well - you can well imagine that we're up in August, not too many - the people in those communities know it. The rest of the country doesn't. And after the election, we came down. Nothing to be read into that, other than that's the decision we made at the time, period. By the way, it's a - well, I'll just leave it at that. My recollection is is that I'm not sure President Bush won Washington, D.C., New Jersey or New York. So if you think it was an advantage to us politically, I think you've got to go take a look at the electoral results.

CONAN: Let's go to Jonathon, Jonathon calling us from near Topeka, in Kansas.

JONATHON (Caller): Well, good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JONATHON: Of all the titles you hold, the one called Marine is the one I favor the best.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JONATHON: And you need that courage today on this station. I respect you all the more for coming on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDGE: Well, I'm an…

JONATHON: Anyway, to the topic at hand. I lived for a Colin Powell, Tom Ridge ticket. I want to ask this in an apolitical way, but I know you'll have to include politics in the answer. Why can't we close this nation's borders to all by legal immigrants? Why is that so hard?

Mr. RIDGE: Because we don't have an immigration policy. First of all, I'd be proud be a Marine. I must tell you, sir, I was 11 Bravo United States Army Infantry, staff sergeant Vietnam and proud to be associated with my colleagues in the Marine Corps, and my…

JONATHON: I'm a staff sergeant, retired. Semper fi.

Mr. RIDGE: There you go, man. We don't have an immigration policy. Not only do we not have a southern border strategy, we don't have an immigration policy. I address it in the book. And the fact of the matter is is that this going to - has been the third rail of politics. At the end of the day, people get made to make tough decisions, not just to cut ribbons. And hopefully, in the next year or two, we devise - we design one.

JONATHON: Well, we've got to care for people that want to come to this nation. I favor unlimited immigration for all Latinos, but it needs to be done legally.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, that's right. I mean, I think we need to enforce the law very rigorously. But at the same time, in the 21st century, America's economic security, as well as our personal security, depends on our ability to stay connected with the rest of the world, not less connected. Which means that…

JONATHON: Well, God bless you, and thank you for your service.

Mr. RIDGE: Yes, sir. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jonathon. Here's an email from Desmond in San Antonio. I recently graduated from a novice Homeland Security program at UT San Antonio. And after the program ended, most students were still asking: Does the increase in global terrorism illustrate a failure of a responsible U.S. foreign policy? If so, what could be done to reverse the surge in international terrorism?

Mr. RIDGE: You know, I think the increase in international terror means we need more allies, because, frankly, if you take a look at - the United States has been one of the few - the leading country, but there have been very few other countries that have committed the resources - both military, intelligence, law enforcement and the like - to combat the scourge of international terrorism. It is an international scourge, which means it requires an international response. And to that end, there haven't been enough countries that have been terribly responsive.

CONAN: In your book, you described the drinking from the fire hose of information shortly after you're appointed to be director of Homeland Security in the White House at that point. And, you know, again, you were put into a very difficult position. But anyway, you talk about learning about Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar and activist and how he was tortured in an Egyptian prison.

Mr. RIDGE: Right.

CONAN: And how the same happened to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the number two in al-Qaida. And the result of these - of the torture in those Egyptian dungeons was, I think you write, predictable, a rage for revenge. And then you'd go on to say…

Mr. RIDGE: Yeah.

CONAN: It's a point I think about whenever I'm engaged in discussions about the effects of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Mr. RIDGE: Right. Well, it's - make no mistake about it, Abu Ghraib - I'm saying this as a former soldier. I know the kind of training the men and women in the military in this country get. And I also believe in my heart, in my mind, that the treatment that was chronicled there was an aberration. That's not normally how we do things. And for that - but for that reason, I think it's regrettable - simply because it could be used as a recruiting tool. It's not how we operate in the military. We're trained differently.

As a matter of fact, I know of my own personal experience, some of my men in Vietnam were publicly exposed to their own peril because they refuse to engage an enemy because they thought there were civilians in the way. So, I don't do that as a standard operating procedure. But even though it was an occasion where we should - and we should have corrected it, and we did, and everybody did, it was a good recruiting tool.

Guantanamo has always bothered me - and I say this candidly, not that we set it up. I mean, we needed to set it up, and the president, Secretary Rumsfeld and everybody did the right thing by putting it there. For me, it was symbol of something more important than a place of incarceration. For me, it was and continued to be a symbol of - this is America that talks about due process.

I don't mean these individuals deserve all the protections of our criminal justice system, because they do not. But why not give them a lawyer, design some panel, provide some rules - an impartial panel, evidentiary rules and determine whether or not they should stay.

And when I traveled around the world, the people who were critical of Guantanamo, weren't critical of the fact that people who interred there, they were - excuse me, interred is a wrong of…

CONAN: Interned. Yeah.

Mr. RIDGE: …(unintelligible) they deserve. Now, some may deserve to be interned there, but incarcerated there, but the criticism wasn't of that nature. The criticism was the United States of America, we expect you to provide some form of due process. I have one official say, I know it's not your criminal justice system, and it's probably not a uniform code of military justice. But figure out some form of due process, determine who should stay and who should go. And we don't care where you put them. But we expect you to have some kind of determination.

CONAN: Tom Ridge's memoir is titled "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe Again."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Secretary Ridge, I know that you're familiar with - I think it was former Vice President Cheney was just on the television this past weekend, talking about how he worries that the policies of the Obama administration are not keeping the country safe. Do you agree with him?

Mr. RIDGE: Well, I've said before, I disagreed with the vice president, because I do think waterboarding is an extreme form of torture. But I disagree with this administration, particularly the attorney general, with the notion that some of these methods of enhanced enforcement should be - we should be barred from using them.

And more importantly, or at least as importantly, is that the manner we use them to interrogate prisoners three, four, five years ago should potentially be subject to criminal penalties. I think that's wrong. And frankly, if I am looking for a job with the CIA or the FBI, I guess I'd try to avoid being interrogated because some future attorney general might say I did something criminal as I try to protect my country. And I'm just not sure I want to expose myself and my family and my reputation to that.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And let's go to David. David in Carlton, Minnesota.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Mr. Ridge.

CONAN: Yes, sir.

Mr. RIDGE: How are you doing?

DAVID: Yeah. I've got a question. Was there ever any thought or policy given to, like, for our active military personnel, the young men and women, that are using the commercial airlines to be shuttled to and fro as far as how they go through the airport. We had a real disturbing experience with our son when we came back from his graduation as he's accompanying us at - from San Diego. And it was - it kind of left us all with a real bad taste in our mouth. And I -just wondering if there was some policy or some thought given to that, because, you know, most of the military personnel have been through all of these background checks, FBI checks, you know. When the present that military ID, that should be enough and they should go right through - I think, anyway.

Mr. RIDGE: Well, listen I - there are a lot of loose ends out there that need to be tied up. And I'm sorry you and your family had such an unfortunate experience. I mean, that is the question - that raises a broader question of what kind of identification should we give military people or non-military people that say to whoever is looking at that form of identification, basically, that these folks are pre-cleared. And that's an issue, I think, we need to take up with, on a broader scale than we've done before.

And I'm sorry you had that inconvenience. You know, that - and again, I just try to remind everyone that after 9/11, everybody was scrambling to make sure that it didn't happen again. We've advanced ourselves to a much safer place. We have more dots to connect. We've got more information to share. We're sharing -the list goes on and on. But it's still a work in progress. And I think we should continue to deal with these issues like where's the communication system for the first responders? Where is the exit system for U.S. visit? Where is additional money we need for the Coast Guard.

There's a long list of things we need to do in tying up some of these lose edges, including trying to figure out how you can streamline a process where once people have been identified as pre-screened, that they can move through airports.

I remember we tried a system where he had, I think, five airports, three airlines and people volunteered their iris scans, their fingerprints, some background information. And we said that we use your iris scan to confirm you are who you say you are, the fingerprints against the database and, you know, a little background information. And if you agree that you ought to be operating in a risk-managed world, we would say, okay, you just go to the metal detector. You can keep your shoes on and your computer on.

We're not there yet, but I hope in future years we consider about going down that path.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

Mr. RIDGE: Thanks, David.

DAVID: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: And Secretary Ridge, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. RIDGE: It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with you, and I thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Okay. Tom Ridge, his new book, "The Test of our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe Again."

Coming up, forget the film. The story behind the real Inglourious Basterds is far more interesting. Kim Masters joins us with the true tale of her father's secret unit, Force X.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Test Of Our Times'

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A few days before the 2004 presidential election, The New York Times reported that national polls showed a virtual dead heat in the race between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. What the Times didn't print and didn't know is that an election- eve drama was being played out at the highest levels of our government that speaks to some of the most significant and delicate issues we face as a nation. Had this episode been reported, I can only imagine how the editorial page of the Times, never a fan of the Bush administration — or me, for that matter — would have reacted: "The White House has put the country's welfare at risk for blatantly political reasons — so that the president, whose strategy since 9/11 has been to strike fear into the hearts of U.S. citizens, can assure himself a second term." The reality was more complex than that — realities are always more complex than editorials portray them — but I confess that this event, dramatic and inconceivable, proved most troublesome for all of us in the department.

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.

Late night news, morning show hosts, and probably every American citizen was wondering what it all meant. The messenger, the message, the timing — was an attack imminent?

Predictably, the message was critical of President Bush. It threatened, "As you spoil our security, we will do so to you Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked." Was it a precursor to another attack?

We huddled that Friday night. Next morning we met early at the department's headquarters. The country was unaware that all levels of government had quietly ramped up security several weeks before the election, although not to the level that would have been required had we actually gone to a higher public threat level (orange). The timing of the tape may have been a surprise; the content was not. Within the department no one felt it necessary to consider additional security measures or to call the Homeland Security Council into session.

Bin Laden had contempt for the president and hated America: This was not news. From September 11, 2001, to this video broadcast, there had been nearly twenty audio and videotapes attributed to either bin Laden or his lieutenant al-Zawahiri. In fact, earlier in October, al-Zawahiri, in an audio recording, again urged Muslims to mount resistance to "crusader America." As was the case after receipt of most of the previous tapes, no one got particularly spun up about al-Zawahiri's remarks. While not a counterterrorism expert, I had drawn some conclusions about these matters along the way. A threatening message, audio or visual, should not be the sole reason to elevate the threat level. Having been schooled by General Pat Hughes, the much larger question had to be answered. Other than the tape, what was the factual basis for taking such a dramatic step?

With internal agreement that the tape should not alter our security posture, my leadership team and I gathered in our makeshift Situation Room at the NAC to participate in a secure videoconference and listening to a discussion focused on that possibility. Participating were representatives from the intelligence community, the FBI, and the Departments of Justice, State, and Defense.

A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. 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.

There was no consensus reached at that session, and we took it upon ourselves to keep it that way. I was adamantly opposed to raising the threat level and was grateful that Robert Mueller agreed. Absent a consensus, there could be no recommendation for Townsend to present to the president.

There is a cautionary expression that surfaces occasionally during Oval Office or Situation Room briefings and even more frequently in the intelligence and law enforcement communities: "We don't know what we don't know." Let me assure you, it is not expressed as a hedge against future accountability. It is, however, a necessary and painful reminder that total situational awareness in any critical decision-making context is the ideal, never the reality. In the real world of information gathering and analysis, complete and accurate information in the form of actionable intelligence is afforded our leaders about as often as the Chicago Cubs reach the World Series. Assuming we would never have the benefit of a complete picture, we were struggling to understand the proponents' point of view based upon the intelligence we did possess. We certainly didn't believe the tape alone warranted action, and we weren't seeing any additional intelligence that justified it. In fact, we were incredulous.

Admittedly, the notion of an attack during this period had been discussed. Early in the year, we had identified key events at which Al Qaeda might take great glee in dropping something on us: the Democratic convention in Boston, the Republican convention in New York, and the general election were among them. We were all mindful of the impact of an actual attack on the outcome of the Spanish election earlier in the year. But at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm. And as the minutes passed at our videoconference we concluded that others in the administration were operating with the same threat information and didn't know any more than we did, and that the idea was still a bad one. It also seemed possible to me and to others around the table that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country's safety.

All of us at DHS knew better than our fellow participants of the delicacy of raising the threat level. We had long ago learned the disadvantages of routinely worrying the public, of making people fearful without being able to give them any specific information about the threat. We knew the tremendous cost incurred at local levels whenever the level went up. We could fairly predict the public outcry of a national threat alert without sharing specific and credible information to justify it on the eve of an election. We could not see the justification within the intelligence in our hands. But even then, we knew that there was a widespread suspicion of such motives and tactics, and this could entirely undermine the credibility of not just the department, but the administration.

As the conference concluded, we agreed to talk the next morning. We began immediately to engage in our own intelligence gathering. Without more specific information that could be shared with a suspicious public on the eve of an election, we were moving toward a certain public relations disaster. We had to learn more or put an end to the discussion. We were on the verge of making a huge mistake. Pat Hughes would check around the intelligence community. Jim Loy would reach out to his fellow deputies within the cabinet. Susan Neely would contact Dan Bartlett, the head of public affairs for the White House.

When Neely reached Bartlett, he was aboard Air Force One, which was flying the president to a campaign stop. Bartlett said he had been unaware of the discussion that had taken place earlier that morning. He was strongly advised that DHS was strongly opposed. Neely spoke for all of us when she said, "We think it's a terrible thing to do." It was important to remind the White House that just a few weeks earlier, in August, when there was real, substantial, hard information about the threat to the financial sector, a large segment of the media had nevertheless accused the administration of politicizing the nation's security. And now, with absolutely nothing but the tape to justify raising the level, the administration would certainly take an even bigger hit, and perhaps, from the election point of view, a fatal one. Bartlett told her that he would speak to the president and get back to her. By the next day, the whole idea of raising the level was dropped.

I believe our strong interventions had pulled the "go up" advocates back from the brink. But I consider that episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington's recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility, and security.

From The Test of Our Times by Tom Ridge. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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