Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government attempted to streamline the chain of command of national security by consolidating 22 agencies under the Department of Homeland Security.
Tom Ridge was named the Department's first head and was there for the sometimes rocky development of the new agency.
In his memoir, Ridge recounts the challenges and successes of his time in one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
Read a chapter from the book below, then click here explore the "GMA" Library for more great reads.
Chapter 14: The Politics of Terrorism, Part 2
You at Time, the rest of the news media, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, politicians, theorists, commentators, specialists and so forth— just shut up . . . [Y]ou are doing exactly what the terrorists want you to do: instill uncertainty in American lives. Enough, already!
—Letter from a reader to Time magazine, September 6, 2004
It was standard operating procedure that I would accept media interviews before upcoming holidays. There was a certain routine that developed around all major dates on the calendar. The media would make inquiries about security, intelligence, travel, and the like. And I would agree to radio and television interviews on these subjects. In preparing for the pre-Memorial Day 2003 interviews at the World War II Memorial, the networks had identified the location, because it was to be dedicated the following Monday. We learned that Attorney General Ashcroft had scheduled a press conference for later the same day. In anticipation of two cabinet members speaking on the same day in different locations we thought it best to coordinate our public messages to be certain there was no conflict. We called and e-mailed John's people several times, but never got a response.
The next day, as planned, I did my press conference in front of the memorial. In response to questions about threats and security, I said there was nothing new to report. I noted the same level of intelligence traffic, but concluded there was nothing that would require us to raise the threat level.
Later that afternoon, Ashcroft had a far different message. He went to the airwaves to ask Americans to be on the lookout for Adam Yahiy Gadahn and several of his associates. No doubt Gadahn was a character to fear. Born Adam Pearlman and using the name Abu Suhayb, he appeared on a number of Al Qaeda videos, and was identified on these as "Azzam the American." He was subsequently charged in this country with treason.
But Ashcroft's warning that a plot that Gadahn and others were involved in—by the attorney general's estimation, 90 percent done—a massive attack on the United States, seemed to us at DHS to be overstated, to put it charitably. Pat Hughes, our intelligence chief, and others were convinced of this.
During the next regular morning meeting in the Oval Office, I was told by the president bluntly that I had undermined Ashcroft. I was reminded that counterterrorism is one of the administration's highest priorities, and that a united front had to be presented.
No disagreement there. That's why we tried so hard to contact his office the previous evening. My staff and I had done everything possible to avoid precisely the situation that occurred. I felt our credibility was undermined. It was appropriate to ask the country to be on the "look out" for these individuals, but we saw absolutely no reason to suggest an attack was imminent.
No doubt Ashcroft believed he was doing the right thing. His book Never Again reveals the passion and commitment he brought every single day to the counterterrorism mission the president assigned to him after September 11. Nonetheless, it was perfectly legitimate, and I think healthy, for our team to draw its own conclusions. Competitive intelligence should always be encouraged.
And while we disagreed with the conclusions drawn in that press conference, we never expressed them publicly. There were other occasions where we were able to communicate to the intelligence community a difference of opinion. This usually led to private reassessments and a unified public message.
When the differences between our two departments came to the attention of the White House, the Department of Justice normally prevailed. Disagreeing didn't mean I didn't try to understand. The president believed his constitutional obligation "to provide for the common defense" compelled him to take aggressive action at home and abroad to "bring the terrorists to justice." Justice was his domestic counterterrorism agency, and unapologetic about playing offense. DHS played defense. Advantage DOJ.
Although there were some in the administration who saw potential attacks on every threat matrix, our small intelligence shop under General Pat Hughes, who rose from the rank of private to three-star, kept us grounded with thoughtful and compelling analyses. On many occasions when there was interest in raising the threat level, our department was the least inclined to do so. It wasn't about threat fatigue. It was a matter of credibility and trust.
In late July 2004, I flew to Florida to meet cruise ship officials who wanted my thoughts on how they could protect their fleets from terrorism. This scenario was common: Private industry turned to the department for advice and reassurance, both of which we could offer in measured terms. While in the air, I got a call from Fran Townsend, who had succeeded General Gordon as assistant to the president for homeland security. Because it was on an unsecured line, all she could tell me was that some "interesting information" had turned up and that I should be fully briefed upon my return. Later that day, I flew back to Washington and assembled my team at the NAC to get the briefing and determine what, if any, role the department would play. As it turned out, the source was credible, the potential targets identifiable, and we could target our public message and response in a way that we had never been able to do before.
Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who was twenty-five years old and thought to be among the next generation of Al Qaeda leaders, had been trying to leave Pakistan. Khan was one of the organization's technology whizzes. He was someone they turned to when they wanted to know the amount of plastic explosives necessary for a specific destructive purpose. He had used Internet cafes to relay coded messages, some of which were intercepted by Pakistani authorities intent on capturing him. After they took him into custody, the Pakistani intelligence service raided a safe house and, in doing so, discovered three laptop computers and fifty-one computer discs. It passed them along to U.S. officials, and they sent them quickly to Washington.
Over the next few days our intelligence team worked with their colleagues in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. They concluded they had discovered critical reconnaissance information that could be a precursor to another attack. The conclusion was remarkable in that it demonstrated a level of detail, a level of patience, and thoroughness of planning. It showed clearly that Al Qaeda was capable of hitting us in places that were not obvious.
The seized computers contained more than five hundred photographs of potential targets and analyses of how these targets had been protected by authorities and how, nevertheless, the attackers could proceed. This was, to us, a visual insight into the seemingly incomprehensible Al Qaeda mind, and, after so many months of rumor and innuendo, hard evidence that operatives were in this country and doing their work. Among the sites on the videos: the headquarters of Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey, as well as two sites in Manhattan—the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup Building. The videos showed the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington. The detail of the surveillance was particularly alarming. For example, the visuals showed that the windows behind the six columns on the front of the New York Stock Exchange building made it appear "a little fragile," while it indicated it might be harder to approach the IMF and World Bank because of the heavy security. About the Citigroup Building the terrorists said, "Like the World Trade Center, it is supported on steel, load- bearing walls, not a steel frame." The "usual methods" were recommended by the surveillance operatives: employing a heavy gasoline truck or oil tanker for the attacks. The level of detail demonstrated the kinds of information our enemies sought in order to calculate tactically how they could inflict the most damage.
But there was a catch, as there almost always is in these kinds of intelligence finds, and it's what made determining our course of action so hard. The tapes were three years old, made before the 9/11 attacks. We knew that to many Americans, including political opponents eager to discredit the White House and the DHS, the discoveries would seem irrelevant and dated, or at least could be argued as such. Moreover, if we were to raise the national alert level to orange based on these discoveries, we again risked alert fatigue, as well as the enormous expense faced by state and local officials around the country to whom this specific threat didn't apply. Invariably when we failed to provide specific information that would prompt specific measures being taken, someone would ask some version of "Does it occur to you that every time you go to orange, our budget goes to red? Who's going to pay for this?"
In addition, we were growing weary at DHS of the allegation that on those few occasions when the threat level was changed, it was done solely for political reasons. I often said, "We don't do politics." (And I made good on that by not engaging in any partisan activity during my tenure.) But there were many who thought otherwise, including much of the media and many Democrats, who, in an election year, were not shy about making the charge. Their argument was that the federal government—and specifically the White House with the willful collaboration of the Department of Homeland Security—would do anything it needed to do to scare the hell out of the country in order to keep the Republicans—generally considered to be more vigilant and committed on the issue of security—in power. Not true. The critics consistently ignored the reality of the decision-making process. The role of the White House was to accept or reject the consensus recommendation of the Homeland Security Council.
I knew going in that some people would dismiss the new intelligence as old intelligence. But no one in our department felt that way. One of the CEOs I contacted to discuss the upcoming threat alert had the best perspective: The age of the intelligence was of little concern to him. He took it seriously. Enough said. Our work had shown repeatedly that this new enemy of ours has a different view of the calendar than we do. The 9/11 attack was in the works for years, and so was the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. The fact that the information we discovered was three years old by the summer of 2004 in no way convinced us that it was outdated or irrelevant.
We decided that the specific city of the information enabled us to use our alert system in a new and limited way. If this was a precursor to a potential attack on the financial sector, meant to be symbolic in the way that passenger jets destroying the White House and Pentagon were, we could be more precise in our warning. We could focus exclusively on the financial community and the region in which the potential targets were located. No need to involve any other sectors or cities. We limited our elevated alert (orange) to areas of New York City, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And in the case of those cities, our information was specific enough to allow local officials to concentrate security forces in limited areas rather than at every subway station and public building. Even so, we knew that being so visible on Wall Street and other economic locations would be alarming to some.
There was no other choice. Visible security can be a reassuring sign and a deterrent. It was recorded that the attendance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange the following day was higher than the same day the previous summer. It was another example of Americans being unwilling to bend to fear, to alter their behavior in the face of the plans of an unknown enemy. If Khan had been back with his camera in 2004, he would have seen a different picture.
After the threat level was lowered, the reaction around the country to its use was positive. Credibility was always our goal while communicating to the public. Yet, in dealing with these events, I inadvertently appeared to undermine my own.
In the minutes before I was scheduled to appear on national television to announce these plans, the White House called and recommended a few additional words to be included in our announcement. I didn't particularly like the addition. But it seemed pretty harmless, and fighting a battle over it when the assembled media was waiting for a scheduled conference didn't seem worth it. In the context of all I had to say, I concluded, this additional phrase wouldn't really be noticed. After all, the transcript of that afternoon's affair contained thousands of words. Unfortunately, a few of them resonated in the wrong way with critics. It's the age of sound bites. Context and nuance become lost. I should have known better.
My presentation was thorough that Sunday, August 1, 2004. It included the source of the information and an explanation of its relevance. It identified some specific solutions undertaken: buffer zones to secure the perimeter of the buildings from unauthorized cars and trucks; restrictions to affected underground parking; security personnel using identification badges and digital photos to keep track of people entering and exiting buildings; increased law enforcement presence; and more intense screening of vehicles, and packages, and deliveries.
Near the end, I provided the words the White House wanted: "But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror. The reports that have led to this alert are the result of offensive intelligence and military operations overseas, as well as strong partnerships with our allies around the world, such as Pakistan. Such operations and partnerships give us insight into the enemy so we can better target our defensive measures here and away from home." Little did I realize that one phrase in that paragraph would become press fodder for weeks and make me a target for media criticism that I must admit was justified.
In almost any other situation in government or anywhere else, praising the boss would not be an issue. But in this case, citing "the result of the president's leadership" was loaded with political implication, and this was not lost on our critics. John Kerry had just been nominated for president at the Democratic Party convention. Our announcement, as delivered with the loaded words, was seen by some as a way to divert attention from that event and to reinforce in the minds of Americans that— even as the Democrats enjoyed their hour upon the political stage—only the Republican incumbent could keep America safe.
On November 1, 2007, The Washington Post reported that Donald Rumsfeld's "snowflakes," his memos to staff members, had pointed out the need to keep terrorism alive as an issue throughout his tenure as secretary. Terrorism was a legitimate issue, and references to it benefited the administration politically. However, for the next few days after the press conference, I was not dealing with the specifics of the threat but with the meaning of the inserted words.
I am asked, as every public official is eventually asked, whether I have any regrets. I don't harbor many that relate to my time in service to the country. But this was one of them. I should have delivered the threat warning just as we had written it, and apologized later to the White House for my "oversight" in failing to include those congratulatory words. But, at the moment, it all seemed like pointless, throwaway rhetoric. Politics was not on my mind; I had something more important to say. It just goes to show that there's no such thing as throwaway lines in these days of instant replay. There is no media or political tolerance for any mistake of judgment, apparent or otherwise, no matter the extenuating circumstances…
I was not surprised that Vice President Cheney used the self-praise in remarks given two days later . . . and that others were using it. "The president's leadership" was a free-flowing phrase in the administration, as it is in any administration. It was understandable and predictable that the campaign would laud the president. A new norm was emerging, and I learned a hard lesson. Even so, the politics of terrorism and the lessons learned there intersected one more time before the end of the year.
As we came closer to the election, I knew I should plan to leave after the first of the year. I began to see myself, as we used to say in Vietnam, as a short- timer. But in Vietnam short-timers were often given light duties behind the lines; I knew that until the moment I left the DHS, there would be no such consideration. Vigilance until the final hour was required. I believed, in spite of some of the public missteps and private battles, the department had gained a level of public trust that was significant, but fragile.
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.