Tom Ridge: Attempted Bomber Suspect Should Have Been A 'No Fly'

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Host Michel Martin talks with former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge about a recent attempted terrorist attack aboard a Detroit-bound Delta Airlines Flight on Christmas Day. Authorities say passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old man from Nigeria, attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear while aboard the aircraft. The attempt was thwarted by passengers and flight crew, but questions loom about how the incident might have been prevented.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we'll talk about that alleged attempt by a Nigerian-born college student to detonate a bomb on that aircraft headed for Detroit on Christmas Day. Al- Qaida has now claimed a role in the episode, but we wanted to know, what is al- Qaida's ongoing appeal to someone like that Nigerian student? We'll talk with a man whose company studies the communications of known terrorist groups a little later.

But we start today with a closer look at the Homeland Security network that allowed 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to come as close as he allegedly did to detonating that bomb on that plane. Despite warnings to U.S. diplomatic officials by his own father that he had been radicalized, he was able to board a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit, Friday, with the explosive chemical commonly known as PETN, and almost set off that chemical as it approached Detroit, before passengers subdued him and he was arrested.

We, like everybody else, want to know more about what went wrong. So, we called Tom Ridge. He was the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Now, he is the CEO of Ridge Global, that's a security - global security firm. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

TOM RIDGE: Michel, thank you for your invitation. It's an ongoing story and I'm happy to talk you about it.

MARTIN: You said in your memoir that when President Bush first approached you about becoming the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, you said he said it was the most thankless job in government and the most rewarding. Does that seem true? Is that true?

RIDGE: Well, you know, I thought when the president had made an enquiry as to whether or not I'd come to Washington, some of my friends and close advisers and friends said, you know, it's a no-win situation. If something happens you will be to blame because it's all about politics and blame, and we've been seeing some of that going on with the latest incident. But it was a very, very rewarding job and I'm grateful the president gave me the opportunity to set up the department. I regret what has transpired over the past couple of days means that there's still a lot of gaps and vulnerabilities, however, in the information sharing system. And that's what we experienced from the get go.

MARTIN: That's what we want to talk about. Now that we've had a few days to think about it, there are so many things that we can point to. The warning to the embassy in Nigeria, the fact that he was not on the no-fly list, the fact that he was able to get on the plane with some liquid apparently hidden in his underwear. And then there's this - this was reported on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED last night to our colleague Robert Siegel. This is a man named Kurt Haskell of Taylor, Michigan. He and his wife were on that plane with the young man and this is what he told Robert Siegel.

KURT HASKELL: Well, what I saw specifically was the two men go to the ticket agent counter together, only the Indian man spoke. And what the Indian man said was, this man needs to board the plane and he doesn't have a passport. And the ticket agent then responded, well, you need a passport to board the plane. And the Indian man said, well, he's from Sudan, and we do this all the time. And the ticket agent then responded, well, you'll need to speak to my manager and pointed the two down a hallway to speak to her manager.

MARTIN: Well, assuming this is the same man, and Kurt Haskell is very sure that it is, he did get on that plane and evidently he got on the plane without a passport. So, Mr. Secretary, Governor Ridge, I wanted to ask you, what's the biggest failure here? What is the biggest lapse here? Is this a failure of system or is this a failure of implementation?

RIDGE: I think both. It's also a failure of attitude. You said something - you used a word in the introduction to this segment that I found very, very helpful for our discussion. You talked about the Homeland Security network, and it is a network. It is not just the Department of Homeland Security. And in the recent incident, where we were very fortunate to avoid a horrible tragedy there was - the State Department was involved, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Terrorist Screening Center, and it now appears perhaps that the network of security personnel and airline officials in the Netherlands.

And unfortunately in a network of people, sometimes mistakes are made, common sense is left outside the door or procedures are violated. And it seems there's a series of these anecdotes throughout this entire system, where it says it was a problem of information sharing, perhaps protocol was violated. And at the end of the day, Homeland Security can only act on information it receives, and if it didn't have all this information it would be pretty difficult to point the exclusive finger of blame at them.

MARTIN: Looking at it from another direction, the one area that the administration says they're going to be looking at is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, if I have that right?

RIDGE: Correct.

MARTIN: And there apparently are 500,000 people on that list already. I mean, that's almost the entire population of the District of Columbia, in our nation's capital. Can you monitor 500,000 people?

RIDGE: I think you can, you know, I don't think we ought to be perplexed or put off by the number. You know, this is a - you and I did some holiday shopping presumably and you used a credit card, and in the credit card universe there is hundreds of millions of names and people, and yet within a second or two you and I are determined to be credit worthy or not worthy. Now, I realize it's a little more complicated than that, but it's not as if you're - these 500,000 people are getting on planes every single day. So, I think the technology is there.

What I don't think is there is that sense of urgency that we had. I don't think the will is there. And let's - I'm not sure about the incidents in the Netherlands airport, but if he managed to get on the plane without a visa, then it's a horrible, horrible violation of international procedures. But even having said that we find out that the individual was still not on the no-fly list. And I'd be very interested in learning the nature of the communication between the Department of State and the Department of Justice, and the screening center.

We lament over the past couple of years the failure of human intelligence getting close to terrorists, so we could learn firsthand. But when we have a reputable businessman, a father who makes the effort - the extraordinary effort to go to the embassy and identify his son as being potentially a radical and having been radicalized because of his time in Yemen, I think that's enough to put him on a watch list and put him on a no-fly list.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with the former secretary of Homeland Security. He was the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. And we're talking, of course, about the incident where the Nigerian student allegedly tried to detonate a plane heading into Detroit over the Christmas holiday. Speaking of a sense of urgency, here's President Obama. He's obviously interrupted his vacation in Hawaii to talk about this incident and here's what he had to say.

BARACK OBAMA: Those who would slaughter innocent men, women, and children must know that the United States will do more than simply strengthen our defenses. We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle, and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, or anywhere, where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland. Finally, the American people should remain vigilant but also be confident.

MARTIN: You know, obviously it's always a tricky thing when you ask a member of the opposition party, who's someone who has served in an administration of a different political party to comment on the current administration, but I do want to ask, do you feel that this president is demonstrating a sufficient sense of urgency and leadership in this matter?

RIDGE: Well, it's interesting. This year, they've had several arrests. They seem to have done things in a very effective way. They seem to have carried on, frankly, much of what President Bush had put into place. And frankly, you know, the name game, the finger-pointing, the blame game, I'm less interested in that. And I've always been (unintelligible) in fixing the problem.

The fact of the matter is, is that there has been a cultural problem with information sharing that goes back into Republican and Democrat administrations. It is a Cold War problem. It's a Cold War paradigm. It's a need to know, and they were very unwilling to share. Well, now it's a new enemy, a new century, a new paradigm needs to be constructed. So, I couldn't really comment. I'm not going to blame anybody - people are trying to blame the secretary and comment this - I'm more interested in identifying the problem and fixing it. And hopefully it could be done in a bipartisan way because clearly, it's a matter - the technology is there, it's a matter of will and getting it done.

And the only thing I would suggest is that everybody involved should put themselves - involved in the security of this country, should put themselves in the mindset, not in a breathless way, but it's September 12th, 2001. And when you see warning signals, act upon them. Don't think that because nothing's happened before, it's unlikely that something - nothing's going to happen in the future.

MARTIN: I'm interested in your assessment of this. You say that there is a Cold War mentality. We're eight years after 9/11, where presumably we keep saying that this was an event that changed us forever. And you're saying it did not. I'm just curious to know why it is that you're saying a Cold War mentality still grips the department?

RIDGE: Well - question - it is - it's the old paradigm. I mean, we ran into it when we started to create the Department of Homeland Security. We even ran into it when we set up the office in the White House. Historically, the intelligence community and the law enforcement community have been very reluctant to share information. It goes back to the days of the Cold War. They thought if you had a need to know, then if they decided you needed to know it, they would share it with you.

Well, we tried to create a different culture, saying not only do we need to know it, you need to share it with us in the Department of Homeland Security because we may need to share it with other people, with the governors and with mayors and with police chiefs and with airlines. And so, again, it's just an institutional challenge that we have yet to overcome. And you said early on, it is a network. Everybody has a responsibility in this network to have a mindset of September 12th, 2001.

MARTIN: And finally in your memoir, "The Test of Our Times," you obviously thought a great deal about this. We have about a minute left. Could you just tell us a little bit more about what else you think needs to be done to keep the country safer and to prevent an incident like this from happening again. Obviously, the one message you have is that the departments still need to do more in sharing relevant information.

RIDGE: Information sharing is at the heart of it, but I also think they need to pay - frankly, broader issues, they need to pay more attention and more funding to the coast guard. We build an entry system that monitored people that come into the country. And - we now have a database that says several million people have come in since January of '03, but we don't know whether they've left or not, i.e. Mohamed Atta came in lawfully, but he overstayed his visa. We don't - still don't have that interoperable communication system.

And the Congress has lost the sense of urgency because nothing has happened. And maybe, maybe, since we've avoided a horrible tragedy here, this will be a reminder that these are strategic actors. They're very patient. They will come at us again and again and again, and we have that responsibility to recognize these warning signs and communicate them as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you in just half a minute we have left, what do you tell your own family when they are traveling? What do you think about - you're still on the road, what do you do?

RIDGE: Well, I travel all the time.


RIDGE: And, you know, you tell yourself that no matter what system we can create, it will never be fail-safe. You just accept a certain level of risk. I mean, the Department of Homeland Security has to be right a billion times a year, they only have to be right once. We've learned some lessons. Hopefully, we've learned some lessons from this, but I say - I say to my family and the friends, travel, be alert, be - they're doing everything they can, but they could - there are still some things that need to be done. And hopefully the president will use this incident and provide leadership and drive some of these changes that are long, long overdue. And...

MARTIN: We have...

RIDGE: ...both Republicans and Democrats should have a hand in this.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge is the president and CEO of Ridge Global. He joined us from his own office in Washington, D.C. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

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