Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the former governor and U.S. Army sergeant who became linked in the public mind with color-coded warnings of possible terrorist attacks, resigned yesterday after nearly two years overseeing the most ambitious U.S. government reorganization since the 1940s.
Ridge is the first secretary of a department that combined 22 preexisting agencies into one unit designed to protect America from terrorism. He said he will remain until Feb. 1 or until the Senate confirms his successor. Administration officials said President Bush is seeking to replace Ridge with a tough manager who can set clear lines of authority and untangle overlapping responsibilities in the department.
The Department of Homeland Security could experience the most widespread changes of any of the seven Cabinet departments where the heads have resigned since the election, one senior administration official said. "This is a chance for a fresh start and a different approach," said the official, who added that Ridge and the president remain close. "The new secretary can take Ridge's foundation and complete the integration of the 22 agencies and move forward to implementing policies."
Ridge told reporters who assembled at the department's Northwest Washington headquarters for a news conference that "I think we've accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. As I've said to the president, there will always be more work for us to do in Homeland Security."
Among possible successors being mentioned by administration officials and homeland defense experts are White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for transportation and border security at Homeland Security; and former New York Police commissioner Bernard Kerik.
Other possible candidates include former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Leavitt.
Ridge has told friends he is exhausted after more than three years in charge of homeland security -- first in the White House and then as head of the new department. He said he will spend more time with his family, with whom he hasn't taken even a week-long vacation in more than two decades of public life. Before joining the Bush White House, Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania for seven years, and before that spent 14 years in the House of Representatives.
Current and former Bush administration officials, as well as homeland security experts, were divided yesterday in assessing the department's first 20 months. They also disagreed about how much blame Ridge and other agency leaders should share for the department's weaknesses and how much is attributable to understaffing and lean budgets.
"Tom Ridge wrote the preface and the first chapter to a long book that's going to be open for generations" -- the domestic war on terrorism, said Frank Cilluffo, a former associate of Ridge's in the Bush White House who now heads George Washington University's homeland security program. "A quite phenomenal amount has been done in only two years."
Several Democratic members of Congress also issued statements yesterday praising Ridge.
But a former White House official, who requested anonymity, said, "There's not a lot of accountability there [at the department] now because people can hide behind the fact that the kinks haven't been worked out. . . . With the new secretary, people will be responsible for things, which is what the president wants."
Retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, a consultant on homeland security to businesses and government agencies, said: "In November 2001, I predicted Tom Ridge would face greater challenges from the federal bureaucracy and Congress than from al Qaeda, and that prediction has proved correct."
He cited several examples of bureaucratic obstacles that hobbled Ridge and the department -- including the fact that 88 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the Department of Homeland Security. Another, he said, is the way in which congressional plans to give the department a powerful role in intelligence matters on terrorism were scuttled by competing agencies and the White House.
The most enduring image of the Department of Homeland Security for many Americans may be the color-coded threat alerts that were raised to orange, or "high risk" of a terrorist attack, six times since Sept. 11, 2001. As his tenure progressed, Ridge concluded that such nationwide warnings had outlived their effectiveness. Some officials criticized the alerts for needlessly frightening people without increasing their security.
Most homeland security specialists credit the department with a number of strides, such as improvements in securing commercial aircraft against terrorist attack. Thousands of airport screeners now check bags and passengers, and hardened cockpit doors would discourage terrorists from commandeering planes as the Sept. 11 hijackers did.
But blue-ribbon panels and internal government studies have pointed to a number of areas in which the department has made only halting progress. They include not creating gaps in securing U.S. ports against attack, especially from a nuclear weapon, and slowness in addressing the need to monitor cargo flown on commercial aircraft.
Ridge said he wished he had reached out earlier to European officials to develop security procedures. Last December, some European officials were angry when he canceled some cross-Atlantic flights in the midst of a terrorism alert.
"We're more secure and we're safer because of the work of this department," he said in an interview yesterday. But he warned that the nation faces an adversary that nurses grievances.
"This is an enemy that thinks long term, and I mean centuries," he said. "It's an enduring threat to us, for decades to come."