Ridge on the Ledge

Ridge on the Ledge

Will the Homeland Security chief be an effective overseer or another spinner?


As the anthrax attack widened and the White House bungled its response to terrorism-by-mail, the Bush Administration sought help (please!) from Tom Ridge, the newly appointed director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security. Here was an opening for Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, past congressman, decorated Vietnam vet and best buddy of George W. Bush. He could reassure and inform the public, and become the competent and confident front man for a helter-skelter Administration. But Ridge immediately drew criticism, as the Bush White House failed to move expeditiously to protect postal workers. He tried to look in-command during public briefings, but his remarks too often veered toward pap. In a speech, he noted that the "challenge" for the nation is to make a "transition" to an era in which citizens realize "our own country is under attack by a different kind of enemy." Don't people already know that? In an interview, Ridge was asked when he first learned of the potency of the anthrax in the letter to Senator Tom Daschle. He replied, "The first time we had a fatality." Ridge did arrange extra funds for the anthrax-ridden postal service, but it has been hard to tell whether he's truly the overseer of homeland defense programs or merely another high-level spinner.

Ridge's supposed mission is to coordinate dozens of agencies and departments involved in domestic antiterrorism efforts–the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, the Justice Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, Health and Human Services, the Coast Guard, the Postal Service, the Border Patrol and so on–and guarantee they work smoothly with local and state authorities. Skeptical lawmakers and mayors have questioned whether his job–currently structured to render him kibitzer-in-chief–makes sense. Ridge's close friendship with Bush is a strong qualification for this position, but his background is not replete with accomplishments suggesting he can succeed in this post–that is, if anyone could.

His number-one priority, obviously, is preventing terrorism. Much of his time as Pennsylvania governor was devoted to law enforcement, yet, like most Republicans, Ridge focused not on crime prevention but on increasing punishment for criminals–a specialty not entirely relevant to thwarting suicide bombers. In fact, based on his record, there is little reason to believe Ridge will fancy out-of-the-box thinking, especially in the areas of crime and civil liberties. In 1994 Ridge, a pro-choice GOP congressman, campaigned for governor as a tough-on-crime candidate. He attacked his Democratic foe, who had chaired the Pardons Board, for having voted for the release of fifty-five lifers, one of whom went on to rape a woman. Once in office Ridge convened a special legislative session on crime. Thirty-seven bills passed, most of them increasing criminal penalties and bolstering the power of prosecutors and police. Over the next five years Pennsylvania courts would find unconstitutional key pieces of this legislative frenzy–including a harsh mandatory sentencing act, a law shortening the time for death-penalty appeals and legislation toughening the commutation process for inmates. In July the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated a law enacted under Ridge that compelled teens charged with certain crimes to be tried as adults. The paper found that "the law has proved to be both unfair and ineffective," noting that "teens sent to adult lockups are more likely to commit new crimes when they get out than teens sent to juvenile reform schools, where they get education and counseling."

Ridge was an ardent fan of the death penalty, signing more than 200 death warrants; three people were executed on his watch. While he was governor, state funding was shut off for the Center for Legal Education, Advocacy and Defense Assistance, which in five years had won more than 160 stays of execution and overturned a dozen death sentences. Ridge declined to undertake a statewide review of death-penalty cases, and after the legislature in 2000 approved $614,000 to train defense lawyers handling death-penalty appeals, a spiteful Ridge administration delayed releasing the money. Ridge also championed a roving-wiretap bill. He did not complain when state police infiltrated political groups planning protests at the Republican convention last year in Philadelphia. As a congressman, Ridge did vote for an assault weapons ban, earning the ire of Pennsylvania gun enthusiasts.

As Homeland Security chief, Ridge is now intricately involved with the public health infrastructure, which, as current events illustrate, is a crucial component of domestic security. In Pennsylvania Ridge entered the governor's office with a skeptical stance toward the public health system. He proposed privatizing the state's sixty health centers–a move that angered many GOPers. Republican state representative George Hasay said, "The public health centers play a vital part in containing and monitoring contagious diseases, such as AIDS and tuberculosis. My feeling is that we don't want to gamble on or experiment with public health." Another GOP State Representative, Roy Cornell, asserted that the Ridge administration "offered no cost analysis and no studies to prove closing the centers is in the best interest of the commonwealth." The state House smothered Ridge's initiative on a 198-0 vote. In 1998 Ridge's first physician general quit, complaining that Ridge lieutenants were blocking her from expressing views because of political concerns. His first two appointments as secretary of health disappointed public health advocates; both men lacked experience in the public health field. Eventually Ridge selected a secretary with a public health degree. "He came into office without much appreciation for the role public health plays in government," says Jeffrey Barg, editor of the Pennsylvania-based Physician's News Digest. "But he made progress and developed a better appreciation."

These days the public health system is one of many worries for Ridge. Since taking office, he has had to persuade members of Congress that having a Cabinet-level official running a small office that coordinates other agencies–rather than having a new, full-fledged Department of Homeland Security–is the best approach. Many lawmakers have wondered whether Ridge can achieve much as a mere facilitator, and several have proposed granting him budgetary and statutory power over the agencies he seeks to coordinate. "The czar model will not suffice," says former Senator Gary Hart, who recently co-chaired a commission on terrorism that advocated creating a Homeland Security Department embodying existing agencies like the Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard. "Without budgetary or statutory authority, Ridge is doomed not to succeed. If he only has the power of exhortation, the disparate agencies will do what he asks them only when that is approved by their own superiors. Ridge can have interagency working groups and encourage people in the Coast Guard to talk to Customs, but gaps and seams will remain. He will have to keep going to the Oval Office to make anything happen. Anyone who knows Washington knows this won't work." As of late October, Hart notes, Ridge had yet to meet with members of Hart's commission, including Republicans who had sought a session with Ridge.

Hart's criticism, though, is not a consensus position among counterterrorism thinkers. In a statement submitted to a Senate committee, Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and I.M. Destler, a security studies fellow at the University of Maryland, argued that "homeland security is in its very essence a highly decentralized activity–dependent for its success on hundreds of thousands of individuals, from border guards and customs agents to doctors and policemen…. These functions cannot be brought into a single agency." In an interview, Daalder scoffs at the single-department theory: "Senator Hart has no idea how government operates. Who's involved with anthrax? The CDC, the Army research lab, HHS, FBI, DOJ. You cannot put the entire US government under one roof. Too many agencies are involved in homeland security. The key is information sharing. How does Ridge do this? He can pull in John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson and Robert Mueller and say here's how we're going to do this. But if Ashcroft goes around the process and Bush doesn't slap him down, the whole thing breaks down. It could get very messy. The critical issue is whether Bush backs him up."

Congress is not likely to stuff a Homeland Security Department down Ridge's (and Bush's) throat. So the question is whether Ridge can cause the many cogs of Bush's federal government to whirl in sync. "This is quite contrary to being a governor," says Daalder. "Ridge needs a different skill set. He has to be able not to order people around and deal with people with great egos and convince them to buy into the process." A prison reform advocate who worked with Ridge in Pennsylvania–who prefers not to be identified–observes, "This new job requires somebody with creativity who can squeeze into the bureaucracy and make it work. I don't see Ridge as that sort of person."

Personality aside, there's no indication Ridge is approaching his new assignment with a wide vision. The chief of Homeland Security conceivably could ask the Administration to rethink its commitment to nuclear energy in order to lessen the number of potential targets of terrorism. He could push more extensive federal food inspection programs and rigorous gun control as pieces of an antiterrorism campaign. What he must bring to his new job–beyond Friend-of-George credentials and a passion for interdepartmental coordination–is plenty of imagination. Yet Ridge made his first mark in the job as a less-than-impressive spokesperson for an Administration caught in the anthrax glare. As Homeland Security honcho, he has to rise above serving as a cheerleader or flak-catcher for his pal the President. If he cannot, his credibility will suffer, and so will his efforts to goose the bureaucracy to better protect the public. The last thing the homeland needs is one more administrative pitchman.

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