Two Years Later: Homeland Security
Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security
Thursday, September 11, 2003; 2:00 PM
Shoe removal at the airport was an act seldom seen prior to September 11, 2001. Now, however, Americans have become all too familiar with heightened security, changing threat levels, and even the best brands of duct tape.
The Bush administration responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center by creating the Department of Homeland Security. But do Americans feel more secure? Does U.S. security outweigh the ambitions of adversaries?
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge was online to discuss the developments in U.S. security since 9/11.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Secretary Ridge, the State Department today issued another warning that al Qaeda may be planning large-scale attacks on American interests both abroad and here in the United States. Does the Department of Homeland Security have any plans to increase the threat level back to orange?
Tom Ridge: Today at Code Yellow, this country is at a higher level of security and protection than a year ago.
There have been a number of credible reports of potential terrorist activity around the world, targeting the time period around the anniversary of September 11. During the past several weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has sent out multiple information bulletins to homeland security professionals in the public and private sector, to share threat information and provide advice on protective actions.
Absent more specific information about time, method and location, we maintain the same threat level.
Mr. Ridge, would you please address what is being done to
secure U.S. borders (Canadian and Mexican), our
ports (specifically shipping containers), and our
nuclear power plants? Chilling accounts continue to
surface of lapses in, or a complete lack of, security
on these fronts.
Tom Ridge: Americans should know that we have made tremendous progress to secure all our borders -- land, sea and air -- since September 11, 2001.
We have more people and technology deployed at all our borders. We have more information about people and cargo that cross our borders. We have great cooperation with the intelligence communities of Canada and Mexico to stop the illegal flow of drugs, illegal aliens and terrorists.
We are protecting American ports by inspecting crew and cargo before the ships leave for the U.S. We are stopping and searching all high interest vessels at sea. The Coast Guard, part of this department, continues to conduct a record number of air and sea patrols. And, state, local and private authorities have increased their own surveillance.
The security at every nuclear power plant have been individually assessed, and additional protective measures have been put in place where needed with both public and private resources.
Do you believe the threat warning level system creates unintended consequences, since most increases in the threat level have not been accompanied with detailed information that would allow for citizens (for whom the warnings are intended) to make changes in their behavior or take actions to increase their safety? Or is the threat level (even without detailed information) simply a way of telling the U.S. population to be more observant and wary?
Tom Ridge: The Homeland Security Advisory system is designed to accomplish two goals. The first is to advise homeland security professionals at all levels of government and the private sector of the level of threat, and as much as possible the nature of the threat so they can initiate their own action plans to increase protection for your communitiues. Since the threat system was launched a year ago, all states and terrories have adopted the system and we are actively working with private companies to do the same.
The second goal is to alert Americans that based on our best intelligence that the prospects for a terrorist attack have changed. Up to this point, the change in the threat level has not required individual citizens to change their plans -- in fact on those occasions when we have raised the level, we have encouraged people to go about their lives, and just know that the homeland security professionals in their communities and across the nation are doing everything they can to disrupt the threat and increase protections.
Secretary Ridge, you've taken control of the lives of more than 160,000 federal employees, as Stephen Barr pointed out in this morning's Post. Do you feel that you are in touch with department employees, since they are the people that will make a difference in the war against terrorism? Thank you.
Tom Ridge: You have appropriately noted that the success of our department rests on the talent, commitment, motivation of the men and women of Homeland Security. Even before I was confirmed as Secretary, I held my first of a series of town meetings to listen to the question, concerns and ideas of Homeland Security fellow employees. Other leaders within the department have reached out in the same way so that we better understand their concerns about their workplace and their ability to get the job done.
Prior to September 11, Americans may not have recognized the critical work done every day by the border guard, the airport screeners, the Coast Guard and others within the department to protect our country. But, I think we all recognize it now. And, I am honored to serve with them.
washingtonpost.com: Two Years After the Attacks, Government Reorganization Goes On (Post, Sept. 11)
How does the Agency get threat information, and what do you do to ensure the credibility of that information?
Tom Ridge: Homeland Security is key part of the intelligence community. Every single day, we learn more about the terrorists, their operations and their plans. And, every single day, we use that information to take action to protect the homeland.
We start every day in the Oval Office to review the threat information with the President and the Vice President. Twice a day, by videoconference, all members of the intelligence community, review the information as well as the actions taken to protect America. The amount as well as the quality of information has been significantly improved since September 11, because more nations are involved in sharing more information about terrorist than ever before.
This department now shares critical threat information with state and local officials as well. We've actually begun providing security clearances to Governors, State Homeland Security Advisers and other officials so that they can be as well informed as we are.
Mr Ridge, how much safer are we today than two years ago in terms of internal (Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma) or external terrorist attacks, and why?
Tom Ridge: We understand that our mission is to prevent terrorist attacks regardless of the origin. We remain equally vigilant to the possibility of both, and so does the FBI.
The progress we have made in the last two years to increase protections of the homeland against foreign terrorists has made us safer from domestic terrorism as well.
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