Ridge's Mixed Legacy on Homeland Security
Op-Ed, Chicago Tribune
December 5, 2004
Author: Daniel B. Prieto, Former Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Research Director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative, 2004-2005
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Washington insiders always felt a little sorry for Tom Ridge, who announced his retirement as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security last week. Ridge was a good soldier in a tough position. In an environment where, as President Bush likes to say, "We have to be right all the time and the terrorists need to be right only once," his was a thankless task. His successes were largely invisible, but any failure would be unforgivable.
Despite that, Ridge was in many ways a success: Affable by reputation, reassuring on TV and able to engender loyalty among his staff, he presided over the largest reorganization of the federal government in nearly 50 years. And, of course, no more terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil on his watch. But a closer look reveals that under Ridge's leadership, the new department failed to live up to its most important promises. As a result, Ridge's legacy will be mixed, and unless the department can dramatically reassert itself under a new secretary, Americans will be shortchanged in their expectations.
The biggest challenges Ridge faced were mandated by law. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the department, required it to play a leading role in managing information on terrorist threats, but gave it no authority over the owners of that information, the CIA and FBI. The act also required the department to develop a comprehensive national plan to protect likely terrorist targets, including the 85 percent of our nation's critical infrastructure that is privately owned, but it gave DHS no authority to issue regulations to establish basic security measures at private facilities. Finally, as homeland security secretary, Ridge was given the responsibility to merge 22 federal agencies and 180,000 employees into one unified department. When the dust settles, Ridge's failure to accomplish more on these fronts may be his lasting legacy.
Homeland Security was charged with fixing the bureaucratic "connect-the-dots" problems that kept the CIA and FBI from sharing critical information that might have been used to foresee and prevent the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. That has not happened, in large part due to two early bureaucratic battles that Ridge lost. In 2003, President Bush created the Terrorist Threat Integration Center to analyze all the terrorism-related information that intelligence agencies produce daily. He also created the Terrorist Screening Center, which was meant to create a single definitive list of suspected terrorists for use by police, border and immigration officials. After lobbying by then-CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller, both centers ended up within the CIA and FBI, respectively. According to Homeland Security's inspector general, the department "is not carrying out significant responsibilities assigned to it under the Homeland Security Act." By failing to defend turf clearly granted by law, Ridge consigned his department to the children's table on information sharing into the foreseeable future.
The act also assigned the department a key role in protecting critical infrastructure.
Ridge failed to complete a prioritized and comprehensive national list of these targets, much less develop a comprehensive plan to protect them and guide spending wisely in an era of growing budget deficits. Lacking a basic road map, Washington has little strategic sense of how to secure hundreds of thousands of potential infrastructure targets, and has predictably reverted to its basest pork-barreling instincts. Consequently, rural areas unlikely to be terror targets get the most per-capita spending, while only minimal security measures have been put in place at key ports that feed necessary goods to vast regions of the country and dozens of nuclear and chemical plants where a truck bomb could kill tens of thousands of people.
In the end, Secretary Ridge's story resembles that of Steve Case, the America Online founder who engineered his company's acquisition of Time Warner. Like AOL-Time Warner, Homeland Security was one of the most anticipated mergers in American history— breathtaking in scope and ambition. Like Case, Ridge's Boy Scout persona and genial personality were ill-suited to win the tough bureaucratic fights that will determine Homeland Security's long-term success or failure.
Now the question is: Do you continue to believe in the organization's ability to deliver on its promises? And will Ridge's apparent successor, former New York City top cop Bernard Kerik, do any better? As an AOL-Time Warner shareholder, you were free to sell the stock before it tanked. As an American citizen, you have little choice but to live with Homeland Security and cross your fingers.
Daniel B. Prieto is research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He served as director of corporate development responsible for strategic mergers and acquisitions when AOL acquired Time Warner.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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