Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge To the National Press Club
MS. LYTLE: This weekend marks the 100-day anniversary of America's newest cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security. Its Secretary, Tom Ridge, has chosen the National Press Club as his podium to report the strides this department has made during that time in strengthening the domestic security of our country.
Secretary Ridge has been tackling homeland security since October 8, 2001, when he was sworn in as Director of the brand new Office of Homeland Security. His charge, as America's first Director of Homeland Defense, was to develop and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to strengthen the U.S. against terrorist attacks.
Today, as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, he oversees some 180,000 employees from 22 combined agencies. They work to strengthen the borders, provide intelligence analysis and infrastructure protection, improve the use of science and technology to counter weapons of mass destruction, and create a comprehensive response and recovery operation.
Before undertaking this challenge, Tom Ridge had twice been elected Governor of Pennsylvania and had served seven terms in the U.S. Congress.
Earlier, he was an assistant district attorney in Erie County, and before that, an attorney in private practice.
Secretary Ridge was born in Pittsburgh's Steel Valley and raised in a working class family in veterans' housing, public housing, in Erie. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, graduating with honors in 1967.
After his first year at the Dickenson School of Law, he was drafted into the Army, where he served as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star for valor.
Secretary Ridge and his wife, Michelle, former Executive Director of the Erie County Library System, have two children, Leslie and Tommy.
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security on January 24th has been called the most significant transformation of the federal government since 1947. That's when Harry Truman merged the branches of the armed forces into the Department of Defense.
The Department of Homeland Security represents a similar consolidation, melding a number of domestic agencies into one department to effectively protect the nation.
We were privileged to welcome Tom Ridge to our podium nearly 15 months ago in his capacity as Director of Homeland Security. How far have we come since then? For the answer to that question, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
SECRETARY RIDGE: Thank you. Thank you.
SECRETARY RIDGE: Thank you very much. Thank you, and thank you, Tami, for that very kind and very generous introduction. Thank you for your warm welcome.
It's certainly my pleasure to speak before the National Press Club membership. In the audience I see there are several friends from my days in Pennsylvania. If I started mentioning you, I'm sure I'd forget some, but to you in the audience as well as to the distinguished men and women reporters and commentators seated alongside me today, thank you for the invitation to join you this afternoon.
Let me first say that the press, the press has become, by way of both trade and talent, an absolutely instrumental component of homeland security.
From threat level changes to citizen preparedness, all of us at the Department not only respect, but you need to understand, we rely upon you and what you do as a vital function in keeping our citizens alert, as well as swiftly and accurately informing America on homeland security issues.
In that spirit, I welcome the opportunity to have this conversation with you this afternoon about the progress we've made since the Department of Homeland Security's historic inception on January 24th of this year.
As we mark the Department's first 100 days, I know some of you are thinking, "Has it been 100 days already?" Well, I'm thinking, "Has it only been 100 days?"
SECRETARY RIDGE: But, in fact, in a way, it feels as if time has stretched further than the calendar would allow, because frankly, I think we've succeeded in making very significant strides during our first few months in office.
We know we have considerable work to do, and many, many things we seek to accomplish, but in a very short period of time, we think we've come a considerable distance. I can report to you that your nation's newest department has made solid, productive, and measurable progress in a very short amount of time.
What did we do in the first 100 days?
Now, I must tell you that this is our goal every single day, be it the first 100 or the next 1,000. Our job is to turn resolve into results and results into readiness. That's the short answer.
That's the answer that tells of the dedication and the tireless commitment of 180,000-plus employees who go to work every single day protecting our borders, our airports, our waterways, our critical infrastructure, working with the private sector in identifying new technologies to apply, working on emergency preparedness, developing a new strategic product by taking the threat information we have and matching it against potential vulnerabilities that we have in the private sector and, as importantly, working to preserve our way of life and strengthening security and safety for our citizens.
These are the men and women who, last January, were tasked not just with a job but with a mission - to prevent and deter terrorist incidents, to reduce vulnerabilities, and in the event of attack, to minimize the damage and to recover.
And I can assure you that the men and women with whom I work at Homeland Security have embraced this mission. They've nurtured it, they've developed it, and they work diligently to serve it to their very best ability each and every day.
As you know, we all saw that same dedication among members of the press corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
From the blustery, sometimes blazing desert to the besieged streets of Baghdad, the best of the best mustered all courage and commitment to get the story, get it right, and get it to the world, and in doing so, the fourth estate lost some of its finest, David Bloom and Michael Kelly, and many others who left us far too soon and as all good reporters do, left us wanting more. At this time, they left us wanting more of them. Their good efforts and their good hearts will be sorely missed.
The last several weeks have been a unique, difficult, and intensely momentous time for America and its allies. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a battle fought against a rogue regime, a terrorist regime - once bullying and brutal, now broken and buried.
Thanks to the brave men and women of the United States military, some whose bravery we will never be able to thank or might not ever even know, we've taken an angry and threatening sword from a country's sinister leadership, dismantled a once ominous capability to terrorize and murder with the most frightening of weapons - chemical, biological weapons of mass destruction - and liberated an impoverished people worn down by intimidation.
Though these are early days, each day we see within Iraq hopelessness is giving way to hope, fear is giving way to free speech, and despair is giving way to the dream of a better country and a better way of life.
I'm very heartened to tell you that the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services granted asylum yesterday to Mohammed Odeh Al Rehaief, who provided critical information to our United States Marines which led to the location and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.
Mr. al Rehaief, his wife, and five-year-old daughter were brought to America earlier this month, after the Department of Homeland Security granted them humanitarian parole into the country.
Mr. Al Rehaief should know that Americans are grateful for his bravery and for his compassion.
SECRETARY RIDGE: And the Iraqi people should know that America stands beside them.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security deployed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to the Middle East before the war began. They went into Iraq embedded with military units and are helping to trace the source of nearly $700 million in U.S. currency seized to date.
We also deployed more than 100 - excuse me - 1,100 Coast Guard personnel to the region, marking the largest war effort by the Coast Guard since the Vietnam War.
But now the mission has changed to one of reconstruction. Currently, we have a number of agents in place helping to provide law enforcement assistance to recover stolen artifacts and investigate money laundering and smuggling. ICE agents have also put out information to the Iraqi people about potential rewards for the return of artifacts that were looted from the Iraqi museum, which has already succeeded in the return of some items.
Additionally, our agents are assisting the military in identifying and investigating violations of the United Nations embargo at various Iraqi ports, and also established Operation Iraqi Heritage, an initiative to recover and return stolen Iraqi artworks smuggled into the United States.
We're also monitoring threat and vulnerability assessments and joining with other coalition security officials to ensure the ultimate protection of both Iraqi citizens and coalition soldiers. It's an extraordinary joint effort by coalition forces and a newly liberated people to restore order, resources, and promise to a long-beleaguered nation.
And yet, while it goes without saying, it must be said: though we disarmed a dictator and his supporters, terrorism, in all its forms, in all its followers, is still a real and daily threat to this country and countries around the world.
As I've said many times, the mission of the Department of Homeland Security is really a mission with no end, until terrorism should one day meet its own end, and knowing our foes as we do now, the demise of hatred and the threat it carries for this nation is unlikely.
And yet I can assure you, our enemies have been disappointed, because America has never lost its enduring spirit. America has decisively gained ground. Today we are not only a stronger nation, but a more secure nation, as well.
Within the first 100 days of the Department of Homeland Security, we've launched a number of initiatives that have brought this country to its highest level of security and protection than at any other time in our nation's history.
There are many initiatives and achievements to cite. Let me simply offer some highlights. And since I just spoke of Operation Iraqi Freedom, let me begin with Operation Liberty Shield.
Operation Liberty Shield launched March 17th, based on intelligence assessments and successes in Operation Iraqi Freedom, terminated on April 17th. It was a comprehensive national plan designed to protect our citizens, secure our infrastructure and, most importantly, deter terrorist attacks.
This was a unified operation that integrated selected national protective measures with the involvement and, I might add, terrific, unprecedented support of federal, state, local, and private authorities from around the country.
Collectively -- and I must emphasize collectively -- one of the chief missions of the Department of Homeland Security is to develop and sustain partnerships with other levels of government, the private sector, and others.
So, collectively, we deployed National Guard and other law enforcement personnel at critical public and private locations. We increased both covert and overt security at our borders. Coast Guard surface and air patrols covered major seaports 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and also initiated more escorts of passenger ships.
In fact, during this effort, Coast Guard units escorted 1800 ferry boats and passenger ships, conducted more than 1600 air and more than 12,000 surface patrols, and bordered more than 1,000 merchant ships to ensure their safe transit in and out of U.S. ports.
We also strengthened security for our transportation systems during this period, heightened security in airports and rail facilities around the country and, working with private railroad companies, implemented security measures to protect passengers and hazardous cargo. New flight restrictions were also put in place over certain U.S. cities.
Additionally, we increased patrols near our key petroleum and chemical facilities and enlisted more security in sites housing radioactive materials.
We also monitor the Internet for signs of a potential terrorist attack, cyberterrorism, hacking, and state-sponsored information warfare. And, in conjunction with the Department of Treasury, we took immediate steps to protect our financial network and payment systems.
Working with the FBI and the Department of Justice, we monitored and sought to identify anyone -- anyone attempting to facilitate terrorist activity through fundraising, logistical support, and recruitment.
The Department of Health and Human Services alerted state and local health departments, hospitals, and medical care providers to report any unusual disease or disease patterns.
The Department of Agriculture alerted employees and representative throughout the food and agricultural community to take extra precautions to monitor feed lots, stockyards, processing plants, import, and storage areas.
And, finally, response and recovery teams and resources throughout our nation were mobilized, in position and ready.
In partnership with federal agencies, our constituents in state and local communities in the private sector, Operation Liberty Shield proved a successful and crucial element in maintaining a secure America and at the same time -- this is very important -- allowed citizens and industry to go freely and safely about their business.
Also during our first 100 days on the job, the Department of Homeland Security deployed new technologies and tools at land, air, and sea borders, whether used to secure Web portals or ports of entry, science and technology and the unique detection and surveillance tools emanating from research and development labs, both public and private, have quickly become the Swiss Army knives of homeland security, which are helping us meet assessment, monitoring, and detection needs of virtually every possible kind.
As you can well imagine, technology will ultimately be critical in our efforts to account for people who enter and leave the United States. So today I'm pleased to announce that the United States -- or the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System -- you know that's leading to an acronym, I don't know if you caught it. But it's USVISIT.
Well, don't sound so disappointed, for crying out loud.
SECRETARY RIDGE: Oh, that was pretty good. I wish I could take credit for making it up. USVISIT will be in its first phase of operations at international air and seaports of entry by the end of 2003.
This system will be capable of using information, coupled with biometric identifiers, such as photographs, fingerprints, or iris scans, to create an electronic check-in/check-out system for people who come to the United States to work or to study or visit.
USVISIT will also provide a useful tool to law enforcement to find those visitors who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas.
All in all, USVISIT is a crucial new border security and enforcement tool that will capture point of entry and exit information by visitors to the United States.
Now, rather remarkably, a quarter century ago the United States stopped -- we actually stopped asking international visitors to register periodically with immigration authorities. Yet, the responsibility to establish a check-in/check-out system is founded in U.S. law going back to the early '50s, most recently through the middle and late 1990s.
The Department of Homeland Security has taken up the responsibility to establish this much needed system that can enhance monitoring the 35-plus million visitors who come to the United States annually.
The basic idea is fairly straightforward. We want to keep terrorists out without compromising the welcoming mat, since the founding of our country has long invited good people around the world to our shores to study and to work and to live out their dreams.
America remains and must always remain, a welcoming nation, and in that spirit, while the new VISIT system will make it more difficult to enter the United States illegally. Once implemented, it will expedite the process for those who are entering the country lawfully.
And just putting it into perspective for you, I happened to be at a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles last Friday. Forty-two hundred people from 135 countries made a choice^; they made a choice to call America their home. Rather remarkable when you think about it, 200-plus years into this great country. And it seemed to me at that time that homeland security is about preserving everything that has attracted those 4200 people from 135 countries to seek entry and ultimately become citizens in this country. It was quite a ceremony, and it goes to the very heart of what our mission is in the department.
I want to stress that the phase-in of the new VISIT system will provide us with the crucial biometric information needed to end the domestic registration of people from certain countries, which has been conducted for the past several months under a system known as NSEERS.
Yet another initiative launched in our first 100 days was the stand-up of the Homeland Security Center, a national 24-7 critical watch operation based within our Nebraska Avenue complex, launched with great speed, design, and enhanced by intelligence experts from all sectors and monitored with all due diligence. The center is an all-eyes, all-ears approach that significantly increases our ability to assess threats and provide really an unprecedented full spectrum picture of the security status of the United States.
In fact, it marks one of the first and most successful coordinated, unified efforts between various component agencies -- the CIA, Health and Human Services, the FBI, the Department of Defense and others -- to centralize this critical homeland security function. Working in tandem with our state and local partners, we will continue to build and to enhance the center's identification and assessment capabilities in the months and the years ahead.
As you all know, citizen preparedness is a key component of homeland security, and in February of this year the department launched one of the most widely recognized initiatives, the Ready Campaign, a national, multimedia public information program designed to build a citizens' preparedness movement by giving Americans the basic tools they need to prepare themselves better and their families in the unlikely, but possible, event of a terrorist incident. You may know it -- you may know it as the "duct tape package." But, in fact, that was just one of the elements in the emergency preparedness kit that some folks chose to highlight in an attempt to add some humor to what is obviously a very difficult subject to talk about, and that is the need to prepare for a potential terrorist event.
But I will tell you that the humor surrounding that one particular element in the kit certainly aroused enough national interest, because within a couple of weeks after we initiated the Ready Campaign, we had 100 million hits on the Web site. So, obviously, people wanted to get ready, and we believe that when an incident occurs is not the time to prepare or to plan. You've got to prepare and plan long before that occurs.
So we've had a great response to the Ready Campaign. After all, every citizen of this great country has a role to play in ensuring the safety of our country. Be it through prevention with your watchful eyes, be it through preparedness in the event of an attack, we're always stronger with citizens at our side.
Among other initiatives launched at DHS has been important funding of our states and cities for emergency preparedness and response. I'm sorry I can't be here tomorrow to listen to my friend the Mayor of Boston, because the cities, very appropriately, and the governors have urged the Congress and the Administration, through the Department of Homeland Security, to secure as much funding as possible to assist them as they respond to both requests from the federal government, but also to build up a national capacity around this country as we go about preventing attacks and reducing our vulnerability to attacks.
In every way, this effort can be successful only if ceded to the cities and states across the country. You cannot secure the homeland from Washington, D.C. You can only secure it from the hometown. If every hometown is secure, then the homeland will be secure.
In every way we recognize the challenges that states and localities face when planning to respond to a potential disaster, and that's why the department is committed to providing them with the tools they need to respond and, more importantly, to be ready, to be prepared.
Already to date we've pushed millions of dollars out of the door by way our Office of Domestic Preparedness and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All in all since March 1st, we've provided approximately $1.6 billion in funding through grant programs, worked with Congress to win passage of a much needed supplemental to gain additional funds, and today I'm pleased to announce that we're making an additional $1.5 billion available to states and cities as early as tomorrow to defray the costs of Liberty Shield and other preparedness measures. So within a very short period of time, we have available to our partners at the state and local level in excess of $3 billion.
Now, additionally, this Thursday I'll be testifying before Congress to continue the funding dialogue so that all of our states and cities have the resources they need to be prepared and ready for all possible emergency contingencies.
And then, finally, without a doubt, since our start-up, we've taken a giant step forward in harnessing the power of our nation's homeland security resources, particularly in merging 22 separate, disparate agencies into one department, which Tami mentioned marked the largest federal reorganization since World War II.
As part of this merger, we reorganized all of our border functions, which creates one border dedicated to securing the borders and one dedicated to enforcement responsibilities and immigration concerns.
Along the same lines, I'm pleased to announce today that our Coast Guard service authorities have awarded two contracts totaling $129 million to Northrop Grumman Corporation Systems for initial development and delivery of the first new national security cutter.
In the 2004 budget, the president has asked for the largest increase the Coast Guard's ever seen, a 10 percent increase, because as we keep adding additional responsibilities on top of this incredibly performance-driven agency, they need additional people and equipment in order to complete their mission.
And this announcement today of the first new national security cutter is a part of their multiyear strategy, called the Deep Water Acquisition Project that will give them more people and new equipment to perform the multiple tasks that they do so well on a day-to-day basis.
As part of the service's Deep Water Program aimed at replacing aging offshore fleet, this initiative will allow us to continue to push our borders further out to sea.
As part of our reorganization efforts, we've also begun streamlining chains of command, establishing single points of contact within our department for outside agencies and law enforcement personnel, consolidating watch and warning functions into a unified, more effective system in the process of combining -- this is a real chore -- a real challenge -- combining the personnel and payroll systems of 22 agencies and 180,000 people. It will take us a couple more days to get that done.
The goal is very straightforward. We want all hands communicating, all resources working together as they should be, and all of this achieved as quickly as possible. One team, one fight. That's the picture of the Department of Homeland Security.
So the bottom line is this. Everything we're doing, everything achieved in the department's first 100 days, from creating smart borders to developing the best of technology tools, from intelligence gathering to intelligence coordination, from partnering with the private sector to opening lines of communication with our regional, state and local responders, it all adds up to this: Your country is ready rather than waiting.
And I commit to you that working with 180,000 of your fellow citizens that this nation will raise to a new level of readiness each and every day. As long as there are those who value vengeance over life, nothing can be guaranteed. However, in the event of an attack, this nation is certainly prepared to respond.
That's in large part because every day the men and women of DHS, along with this country's state and local authorities, believe that doing the right thing, with the right level of focus, is never optional. It's an everyday requirement. They have to be right in everything they do every single day.
So they go to work in this post-9/11 world knowing that what they do and how well they do it can mean the difference between life and death. And they're comforted by your hopes and prayers for their good efforts, determined to be right in everything they do, knowledgeable. And with the memories of citizens and soldiers who will never pass our way again, our people pledge to secure a country where duty and love of country and liberty transcend all else.
And so as I say to our enemies, what I said to them nearly 100 days ago, to those of you who want to get at us, you best never underestimate us. Because Americans do not live in fear, we live in freedom, and we will never let that freedom go.
It's in that spirit that people of DHS, 100 days older and wiser and more efficient and more determined than ever to move further forward in our mission, will continue to build a nation where terrorism in any form posed by any group can never find sanctuary on American soil, a nation that is safe and secure for all those who call it home.
We are pledged to freedom. We will fight for it. And we will do everything possible so that it will endure for generations to come.
Thank you very much.
MS. LYTLE: The first question is, is the homeland safer now with Saddam Hussein now longer in power?
SECRETARY RIDGE: Absolutely, yes. You know, the transaction or the relationship that we never want to see occur in this country is when a nation state secures the capability of developing biological, chemical weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, works in collusion, or contracts out, or finds a group of terrorists and sees to it that their discoveries and their weapons are shared with a terrorist group. That's a transaction we never want to see occur.
And with the demise of Saddam Hussein and his regime, we are considerably safer.
But I do think it's important to note that one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century as it relates to terrorism has to do with the capacity of nations to build these weapons and transfer them to terrorist groups. But one of the challenges of the 21st century and, frankly, a challenge of the progress the world has made with the globalization of transportation, education, science and commerce is, whether we like it or not, we don't need to be a nation state to develop chemical, biological, or crude radiological and nuclear weapons.
So while we're mindful of the possible connections between a nation state and a group of terrorists, we also need to be mindful that, in time, terrorists can build up their own capacity to develop these weapons themselves.
MS. LYTLE: Will we ever go to Code Green? And would that put you out of business?
SECRETARY RIDGE: I hope so, I believe so, but I don't think we'll ever be out of business. We're always going to -- I think the President's decision to take on the largest reorganization since the reorganization of the Defense Department is based upon a belief -- and I think we need to accept it -- that the 21st century world and beyond will have to deal with the threats of international terrorism for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.
This is a permanent reorganization predicated by the notion that it is a permanent change in the condition in which the international community operates. I think it is the most responsible thing to do. But there will be a time, hopefully, prayerfully, that based on the threat assessment, that we'll proceed down from yellow, and maybe to blue, and maybe one of these days to green. But regardless of -- even if we get to the lowest level, we're going to have to remain vigilant, we're going to have to remain on guard, and the institutions that we're setting up will have to still perform effectively and efficiently.
Frankly, the stronger we get our ability to reduce our own vulnerability as we enhance our capacity to prevent terrorist attacks -- we'll always have to sustain that capability within our country.
MS. LYTLE: Has the department deterred any specific terrorist attacks and apprehended any potential terrorists?
SECRETARY RIDGE: Well, we believe as a fundamental principle that overt security, the big movement to talk to the governors and the private sector to put visible signs of enhanced security personnel around critical infrastructure sites, transportation sites, and the like, in and of itself, is a deterrent. And I guess you never know what you don't know.
But the bottom line is that we know from discussion with people that have been apprehended, as the United States and other countries have prosecuted the war on terrorism, that there's a method and a procedure that involves a great deal of surveillance and planning. And when you disrupt that surveillance and when you disrupt that planning with enhanced security measures or changed security measures, if you modify your security patterns, that, in and of itself as a deterrent, has a very strong deterrent effect.
And I think it's pretty clear that in the months we've seen in the past I believe our law enforcement community has very successfully apprehended and prosecuted those who potentially -- well, they've been prosecuted because they violated the law, and they were terrorists in the making.
MS. LYTLE: Is the National Guard stretched too thin from its Homeland Security duties with so many units being shipped overseas? And should the National Guard be part of your Department?
SECRETARY RIDGE: First of all, the profile of the individual National Guard member is rather remarkable I think. A lot of the men and women in the National Guard wear a public service uniform back home.
I mean, it's amazing the number of policemen and firemen and local law enforcement personnel were called up to the National Guard. So these men and women on a fairly regular basis have been in one capacity or another have been working to secure our homeland for a long time. They just change uniforms. Sometimes they did it domestically. Sometimes they've done it overseas. So they're a remarkable group.
I think it is pretty clear that the role of the National Guard has been and, until the Congress and Executive Branch determine otherwise, will continue to be an integral part of the defense apparatus of this country.
One of the advantages, however, with Secretary Rumsfeld's reorganization of the Department of Defense and the development of the North American Command is that we are in a position in the months and years ahead to work in advance of their use of the National Guard and some of the special assets they bring to Homeland Security to work very productively towards plans where we'd be able to use them domestically for Homeland Security purposes.
I don't think they're ever going to become part of the Department of Homeland Security, although there is presently some discussion that down the road, perhaps, they should be assigned to us. But that would be clearly a public and very important public debate between the Executive Branch with Congress.
So right now we are very comfortable and gratified that there is a North American Command with whom we can work, and are working on a fairly regular basis, as we set up the Department of Homeland Security and develop plans to use the specialized assets of not only DoD but the National Guard.
MS. LYTLE: If we go years without an attack, how do you convince Americans to keep up their alert, especially folks who live far away from Washington and New York which were so affected on 9/11? And how will that affect your pleas for funding for Homeland Security?
SECRETARY RIDGE: Well, I certainly hope that we have that advocacy challenge in years ahead. It would be wonderful if the world was immune from a terrorist attack for the next two or three years.
But unfortunately as we view the world and view the threats that we have an opportunity to assess every morning, that is - it's very unlikely to occur. And unfortunately - or fortunately, we will be reminded on a fairly regular basis as to the threat of international terrorism, because it is going to be reported, and we are going to see evidence of it and read of evidence of it in the months and years ahead.
And regardless of whether or not - and this is something that's very important for Americans to understand - although I believe we understand it now far better than ever before, these terrorist organizations as decentralized and networked as they are, al Qaeda -- and thereíll be a successor to al Qaeda - while they may initiate terrorist activity in other parts of the world, the United States is still the primary target.
So I hope that down the road Secretaries of Homeland Security have to beg and borrow more money from the Congress of the United States because we havenít had any terrorist attacks, but I think that's very unlikely. But even if there a sustained period of time when we have not been attacked, we may conclude that one of the reasons we haven't been attacked is because over the preceding months and years we have upgraded our capacity to prevent an attack and reduce our vulnerability, and the terrorists have decided to look elsewhere to take their evil and their hatred.
MS. LYTLE: As you weave together these disparate agencies into one department, what are the major challenges you face in the next six months or a year? And especially, how do you pull together such a hodge-podge of information and computer systems?
SECRETARY RIDGE: First of all, there are a lot of people that believe this is really almost an impossible task^; I will tell you that the glass at the outset is half-full. It's not as if we've got to go out and recruit and then train 180,000 men and women. Because until 9-11, in subsequent public discussions of what goes on at the border and what goes on at the airports and every place else, people never really saw their neighbors who may have one of those jobs as being responsible for the safety and security of the neighborhood or the country.
So I've got the advantage of working with 180,000 people who know what their mission is. They've been doing it for a long time. But suddenly it's been elevated in the public's eye so that people begin to appreciate on a day-to-day basis, just like the police and firemen, the folks at the border, the folks at the airport, the folks at the national labs, the folks in the Coast Guard, the folks at FEMA - they're integral and absolutely essential to us maintaining the security of this country and preparing ourselves in the event of an attack.
So we start with the glass half-full. Clearly there are some organizational challenges. There are dozens of personnel systems, dozens of pay systems, but those are systems. That has as much to do with enterprise architecture as it does with anything else.
The biggest challenge we have, I don't think, is unifying the department because I think these men and women are pretty much unified around the mission - you know, one team, one fight, one enemy. And they've been doing this a long, long time.
I think one of the most critical initiatives that we've undertaken, and the Congress gave us the capacity to do that, is to create a human resource system, a management system based on the principles of merit and fairness, but a management system that isn't based upon classification of personnel that's 40 and 50 years old - gives us an opportunity to build a 21st century management system to deal with issues of pay and recruitment and retention and gives us a kind of flexibility that we want in order to put -- move people around when necessary and take advantage of the talent and experience and resources we have.
The integration of the IT piece, the information and technology piece, is a monstrous task. It's a huge task. But again, they are systems. There are a lot of smart people out there that are in the process of helping us integrate the system.
Frankly, it's been a high priority for the President. Frankly, one of the initiatives of this Administration is they operate through the Office of Management and Budget -- is we get a report card. There's a management report card that Mitch Daniels and OMB gives to every department and agency in the federal government. We start in the red. Now don't get alarmed, don't misinterpret that. We start because we're new. We start at the ground level. But we think we can build, we think, rather quickly to improve the management system, the technology system, the personnel system, because the Congress gave us the flexibility to do it.
MS. LYTLE: What did you learn from the SARS outbreak that could be applied to the possibility of a bio-terrorism attack?
SECRETARY RIDGE: Honesty, early detection and immediate response is the most important thing we can do. Take a look at how that information continues to seep out as to when the virus was first detected in China and when they first responded to it and when they basically painted the complete picture.
It's not just the SARS epidemic, but it was also the tough but valuable lessons around anthrax that I learned shortly after being sworn in as the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, is that you need to have a unified, complete, public message. And when it comes to responding to the presence of something like SARS, it has to be comprehensive. Frankly, if I can take that one step further, in the future if something happens like that -- I referred to it and eluded to it in my earlier comments -- that's where the world of journalists and the role of the press is critical.
Rumors can abound. Rumors can be divisive and destructive. And so it will be our job in the Department of Homeland Security and hopefully to -- working with HHS, because we are building a national bio-surveillance detection system. I mean, one of the things the President has done, he said to Secretary Thompson and he said to myself, "We can make some investments that will help us secure us from the microbes of terror, but in the same process help us secure us from the microbes of Mother Nature."
And as we build a national disease surveillance system, whether it's naturally occurring or terrorist directed, we become a safer and healthier nation. The critical case is get the information, understand it, and react to it as quickly as possible.
MS. LYTLE: Speaking of the importance of news organizations, it's been reported that border agents seized some information being shipped to the Associated Press that was unclassified and turned it over to the FBI without informing the news organization.
What is your view of this? And will other news organizations be subject to this?
SECRETARY RIDGE: I didn't hear the first part of the question, sorry. Well, it just seems to me if it's unclassified -- listen, in this town, even some classified information gets into the public domain (laughter), so you shouldn't be surprised that unclassified information gets into the public domain.
I guess the response to this, if I understand the question well enough, is that the news organization and the structure within the news entity may have a contrary view to the individuals who passed the information over to the FBI. But if it's not classified -- and I don't know the source of the information -- I don't know whether it was actionable information. But look, if a journalist out there had some information that was basically unclassified and could have either the option of sitting on it for a couple of days and writing a story, or if it was actionable enough that if they turn it over to somebody that can move on it quickly without jeopardizing their sources and the other principles they'd have to act on. From my point of view, if it's actionable and you can turn it over without violating any principles they have to act on -- from my point of view, if it's actionable and you can turn it over without violating any principles of your responsibilities - then good, let's act on it.
MS. LYTLE: My understanding is that it was information that was left over from the first World Trade Center bombing.
What can you tell us -- you mentioned Mohammad Al Rehaief -- and what can you tell us, has he met with Private Lynch since he's been here ? And what were the circumstances in granting him citizenship as you mentioned?
SECRETARY RIDGE: I know he, and I believe his family, had plans to meet with Private Lynch. I cannot tell you one way or the other if he has.
Susan, do you have any idea if that's current? I think the -- it was pretty clear to us that the accounts of this individual's personal heroism -- I mean, the notion we had an individual there who saw one of our soldiers being abused -- and there's something to the human spirit regardless of where you live, that it was so troubling and upsetting to this individual that he put his own life at risk, I'm sure not expecting any kind of reward or recognition. If that motivated him, so be it. We're grateful he did what he did, and he did it well and Private Lynch came back to us.
So, again, I think it's a good signal to send not only to his family but to the Iraqi people and to the world at large. We went into Iraq to liberate the people. One of your citizens, at great risk to themselves, helped liberate one of our soldiers. That's pretty much what Americans like to think our duty was going in. You helped us liberate one of our liberators. We show you the gratitude and affection of a grateful country, I think very appropriately.
MS. LYTLE: We have a number of questions about some of the civil liberties changes that have happened since September 11th.
This question asks, "Since we are fighting for freedom and liberty, how can you justify the loss of many civil liberties at home?"
SECRETARY RIDGE: Well, I think it's very important to take a look at -- I'm kind of curious if there was more specific -- it's a rather significant allegation. We're certainly more inconvenienced as a country. There have been some detentions that have occasioned an expression, a public expression of concern. But whenever there's the slightest incursion of anything we consider to be a civil liberty in this country in a transparent world called the United States of America with a system of government, it's not done unilaterally. It still has to be done in public, and it's done with and through the review of the third branch of government, the judicial branch of government.
So some of these matters I think the question is referring to have been taken to the court, and the President does have certain emergency powers at the time of war to do, to detain people, to do some things that the President and other have -- do not have when we're not in conflict. So again it depends on the -- if they were more specific, I'd try to give you a specific answer.
But let me tell you one thing we do have in our Department of Homeland Security relevant to the question. The Congress created two offices within the new Department that we will integrate at the front end of our organizational and policy and program efforts. There's a civil liberties officer and a privacy officer. And I think America needs to be assured that these men and women will be very much a part of the Department of Homeland Security. So that everything we do that may -- that touches on those areas will be vetted before we move ahead.
We're not going to surrender. If we surrender indirectly the freedoms that one million plus Americans have died for over the past couple hundred years, if we do that, then the terrorists secure a different kind of victory.
We can never afford to let them win indirectly what they'd like to somehow achieve directly. And certainly they'd like to see us change dramatically how we react to one another, and alter the liberties and freedoms we enjoy. We will not do that.
From time to time we will do things a little bit differently. Some people interpret those as being an infringement on civil liberties, but you don't do it unilaterally in this country. If somebody questions it, it's subject to review. And again, for the most part, under exigent circumstances during wartime, the courts have given our President and the Executive Branch a little more leeway than they might otherwise have. And we know that in the new Department we have those individuals working with us to protect privacy and civil liberties within our Department.
MS. LYTLE: Before I ask the last question I just wanted to present you with a certificate of appreciation for being here today and a National Press Club mug. And since this is your second appearance, that gives you a matched set.
SECRETARY RIDGE: I can drink with both hands now.
MS. LYTLE: And the last question is, 'Have you bought any stock in duct tape companies?"
SECRETARY RIDGE: Not enough.
MS. LYTLE: I'd like to thank you all for coming today. I'd also like to thank National Press Club staff members Melinda Cooke, Pat Nelson, Joanne Booze, Melanie Abdaw-Dermott and Howard Rothman for organizing today's lunch.
Thank you also to the NPC library for research, and good afternoon.
^macro[showdigestcomments;^uri;Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge To the National Press Club]