Excerpt: 'The Test of Our Times' by Tom Ridge

Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, discusses the agency.

ByABC News via logo
August 24, 2009, 11:20 AM

Aug. 31, 2009— -- 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.

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.