The following interview was made possible through the collaborative efforts and leadership of Dr. Robert O’Block, the founder of ABCHS, the first certification program in homeland security. He, along with the editorial staff of Inside Homeland Security®, participated in this interview in order to bring our members and readers the latest insight and reviews of critical issues, policies, and protocols currently affecting the national security of the United States through the eyes of exceptional and prominent national leaders.
Inside Homeland Security® recently had an opportunity to sit down and visit with the Honorable Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The conversation was both enjoyable and enlightening as Ridge spoke candidly to IHS about his concerns for national security and the future of the Department of the Homeland Security (DHS).
Almost instantly as the conversation began, Ridge revealed an authentic, gracious, and modest personality that was both cheerful and good-humored. Instead of the usual proverbial political rhetoric one might expect to hear from a former public servant, his answers were refreshingly honest, thoughtful, and straightforward. He didn’t shy away from the hard questions, or from simply “calling ‘em—like he sees ‘em.” His insight and thoughts on homeland security were both engaging and informative and his message resonated a couple of points consistently—the need for more urgency and “ACTION.”
Q. What are the biggest challenges or most critical threats facing national security today and in the future?
A. First of all, I think America has learned that the profile of the terrorist that existed right after 9/11 and of al-Qaeda as an organization itself has changed considerably. We need to understand that. The changing face of terrorism in terms of both foreign and now domestic actors and the changing nature of al-Qaeda’s influence on similar groups means the job for DHS and the country is now far more complex than it was even before 9/11.
Q. Would you mind elaborating a little bit more on the changes in the profile?
A. Yes, that is great. I should have probably started with that. Let’s think about 9/11 and the first couple of months afterwards. Where did Justice focus on counterterrorism efforts? Ages 18-35, male, from the Arabian peninsula, [15 of the 19 were from Saudi Arabia]. These were the profiles of the terrorists we were going to have to deal with. Then over the past couple of years, we’ve discovered that they are not all 18-35, they are certainly not all located in the Arabian peninsula and suddenly it’s not just foreign terrorist you have to worry about from the Arabian peninsula, because terrorists are coming in from other parts of the world and trying to enter the United States, and as recently as December 25, 2009. They are not necessarily all male anymore, and oh, my..here’s a stark revelation, we actually have legal residents or citizens of the United States that have been inspired by, if not supported by, if not recruited by, al-Qaeda. So the face of terrorism has changed, and it is much more complex to identify the terrorist these days. The potential pool is much larger and greater. There are a couple of other challenges that I do think we have to confront in this piece. There continues to be, in my judgment, a challenge relating to information sharing. Not only with the federal government, but between the local and state government and into the private sector. However, I do believe there have been some major improvements made in the information sharing efforts within homeland security. As the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report points out it’s a national mission and national enterprise. It has a lot of partners out there and I still don’t believe they are always given the kind of information they need. Not necessarily the information which would require them to take action, but information which they could rely upon in the future to take action because they’ve been kept abreast of developments within their community or region. I think we kind of lost not only the sense of urgency, but I also think the Major Hasan incident as well as the Christmas bomber incident reflects in my mind, the sensitivity to the kind of information that I think does require action. Frankly, I looked at those two incidents and said it’s not about “connecting the dots,” those dots didn’t need to be connected…they needed to be acted upon. And to a certain extent, one of the biggest challenges they have is to maintain the sensitivity, the sense of urgency, and the notion that action may be required and not to simply rely on process.
Q. So what you are saying...there is still a large gap in getting the information out?
A. And acting on it. And here in these two instances, I think there was enough information. One of the things that President Bush built with the support of Congress is the process and the protocol where you share information. In a lot of times, people now share information, but they don’t act upon it. In these two instances, I thought there was sufficient information to act. One, to take Major Hasan out of the environment from which he was operating in and two, to deny access to the Nigerian that got on that airplane—we could have pulled his visa. I am simply saying that there are still gaps, and now I think it is more psychological than anything else. We have a process to share information, but sometimes information doesn’t need to be shared; it needs to be acted upon, and that is more psychological than protocol-driven. I think mistakes were made because some people were not active-ready and one horrible tragedy and one near tragedy resulted.
Q. How do you feel this is playing into the evolving field of situation awareness within DHS ?
A. Well, that’s a fair question. I’ve often said that one of the unique characteristics of DHS which the public is generally and totally unaware of is the fact that the department is a “consumer” of information—it doesn’t “generate” information. So DHS and Secretary Napolitano had to answer for Ft. Hood, but frankly, I doubt if the records will show there was any communication between the FBI and the Department of Army and DHS. The Department of State, having interviewed the father, could have yanked that young man’s visa and put him on the no-fly list, that’s what I would have done, but instead they hit the send button and said, ‘let somebody else make that decision.’ So at the end of the day, DHS is often criticized over something for which it had no control of because it didn’t have any information to take action. If it had the information and did not taken action—now that’s another story. So I think some of the criticism of DHS was unwarranted and there’s plenty out there that may be warranted…but certainly not this. Again, DHS is a consumer of information and a lot of people don’t understand this. There are still a lot of people who think that the FBI and the federal intelligence gathering machinery are all under the secretary’s jurisdiction, but they are not.
Q. Getting federal agencies to cooperate at the local and state level with the county sheriff departments and the local police departments has been a problem forever, so how can we change that? How do we make it happen?
A. That’s a great question. First of all, I think one of the means by which federal agencies are consistent with their historical and cultural inclination is “not to share.” It’s that whole “Cold War” mentality and “need to know” kind of stuff. So for one, I think we have a tendency to over-classify a lot of the information that could be shared and secondly, I still don’t know how we will maximize our ability to prevent an incident in this country if we are not willing to trust some of the key law enforcement and political personnel, particularly law enforcement personnel in our states and cities. The FBI can talk about the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and they do, by and large, do a good job. However, from my experience of talking with a lot of people that are participating in the JTTF, much of the information sharing is predicated on the personal relationships between the agent in charge and the state and locals as to process. So I think we still have a long way to go before we get information sharing where it needs to be. And I would be willing to wager today, that in some cities in America, federal agencies have ongoing investigations on terrorist organizations, and yet the local chief of police in that city doesn’t even know about it. I may be wrong and I hope I’m wrong, but my gut tells me I’m probably not.
Q. Is this just the culture within certain departments?
A. I think it is. It’s a culture that we tried to break down, and did to a certain extent, but its that old “Cold-War” mentality that I talk about in the book—we still have it. Yet, due to the transformative nature of 9/11, a lot of things happened. It was a transformative event in many powerful and positive ways, but it still hasn’t completely altered the mind-set of some of the intelligence of law enforcement agencies in terms of sharing information with the state and locals and probably even with the private sector.
Q. How do you foresee the role of the private sector with assisting DHS in terms of security, training, and critical infrastructure support?
A. The federal government has failed to take advantage of the enormous capabilities that can be found within the private sector to help the government in either preventing or protecting us from a terrorist attack. There are so many conflicts, challenges, and impediments that limit private sector engagement in supporting homeland security. I think one of the best things that Congress could do to support DHS is to go back and review all of the conditions that private companies and individuals have to fulfill before they can come in and even volunteer their services and experiences to help make America safer. The private sector is actually key to this. Without the private sector’s involvement and engagement, the efforts of DHS, border security, cyber security, immigration reform, the development of additional technology for protection and detection, etc., will fail miserably. What Congress has to do is help DHS sort out and formulize a more appropriate way to build relationships with the private sector.
Q. Do you see that happening? Political pressures can make this very difficult.
A. Yes, but how ridiculous. The political pressures? One of the challenges is that Congress has laid out all of these rules for private sector involvement and they were designed to regulate and protect against adverse behavior. Heaven forbid that someone should give advice based on experience, or might gain a contract, or somehow be favored and therefore we shouldn’t engage them. Cyber security is probably the best example...this is the most significant challenge facing this country and we must figure how we can fully engage— top to bottom–the private sector in building a strategic plan, identifying priorities, and in building and finding solutions. We are limited within the government, even with multiple task forces, but if we are truly serious about cyber security we are going to need more than a bunch of task forces. We’re going to need the active day-to-day engagement of the private sector all around these issues in concert with DOD, DHS, NSA, and everyone else. The fact of the matter is, regardless of how good FLETC and the government training programs, curriculum, and venues are, one, you will never have enough of them; two, they will never be diverse enough. So when it comes to training and education, you’ll need a mix of both—training and education both in-house and external to DHS as well the other agencies. You can’t do it all–it’s a division of labor. And it’s a very appropriate division of labor. We already hire the private sector to do analytical work for our law enforcement and intelligence communities –why would we not want to engage the private sector which is willing to engage in the resources to expand training curricula to enhance the capabilities and skills of the men and women currently working or wanting to upgrade their skills within the homeland security industry? One of the questions I thought you might ask is what recommendations do I have for someone who is interested in pursuing a homeland security career? Number one, the first thing you have to decide is whether you want a career in public service. Secondly, as to discipline, I can’t think of too many fields that aren’t needed in homeland security. There are plenty of opportunities out there, and that will continue in the years and decades ahead. If there is a certification program out there that can validate your skill set, or some other advanced program, then I think it would be worthwhile to pursue. One must have a broad and overall knowledge of homeland security and its many components and combined with a very specific academic discipline, educational, or previous job experience-there are plenty of career opportunities available in homeland security.
Q. What is the current status of the national first responders communication system?
A. It’s inadequate and its been inadequate since 9/11. There have been too many speeches and not enough action. Everybody talks about interoperable communication, but nobody has really advanced it. The first thing that Congress needs to do is to see that the FCC dedicates some spectrum for public safety and then Congress needs to invest the billions of dollars needed to create an interoperable system that is nationwide so that data, voice, and video can be streamed. Here we are, almost 10 years later, and it’s almost unconscionable that given the presence of the technology and the availability of spectrum that we haven’t started building up a public safety network. This is an investment that will enhance not only our ability to respond and recover from a terrorist incident, but it’s just an enormous value proposition for the public safety community in general. Shame on us for not having done it sooner.
Q. How do you believe we can combat the spread of radical Islamic jihad recruiting efforts here in America?
A. I think the most important ally in the efforts of combating the spread of radical Islamic jihad is the Muslim community itself. I think your question frames it quite nicely, and it is good to have national meetings with representatives from the broader community in Washington, but it’s the day-to-day engagement of community leaders, political leaders, and law enforcement leaders working together along with the Muslim community that is the most important initiative we can undertake to minimize the effectiveness of recruiting efforts in America. It’s even more important for Muslim leaders to renounce the jihad violence—than it is for non-Muslim leaders, although you need both. But it is critical for Muslim leaders to remind their communities that there is nothing in the Islamic jihad or in the actions of al-Qaeda that speak or seek to improve the human, social, or economic conditions of their fellow Muslims anywhere. So one of the most important initiatives we can undertake is collaborating with the Muslim community in this fashion.
Q. What do you hope your memoir, The Test of Our Times will convey to readers? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently or would change?
A. No, at the end of the day, I hope I’ve convinced the reader that the threat is real, likely to be multigenerational, but that we shouldn’t be breathless about it, because we can manage it, but we need to do so in a way that is consistent with America’s value system and with America’s brand. If they put the book down and say “I got it. It’s real, but manageable, and while we can’t eliminate the risk entirely— we are going to do it in a way that is consistent with our culture, our history, and our legal system,” then I’ve made my point.
Q. You are the national chairman and co-chairman for a couple of very important organizations–could you tell our readers about them? And, what can the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security and our readers do to help?
A. Absolutely...I am very engaged with the National Flight 93 Memorial and the National Organization on Disability (NOD). As you know, we have a lot of severely disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and these brave men and women deserve our support now. The NOD has established the Wounded Warrior Careers Program and is actively working to raise foundation money to create the vital career-support services that these veterans and their families need so desperately. And, the National Flight 93 Memorial is also very important to me. This organization has been working very hard to establish a national memorial to honor the 40 courageous heroes of Flight 93 who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. So, if you could help me to generate and promote more attention and interest to these organizations and encourage more people to get involved and help—that would be great!