Edward Alden Reviews Homeland Security Books by Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff

By Edward Alden
Sunday, October 18, 2009


America Under Siege . . . and How We Can Be Safe Again

By Tom Ridge with Lary Bloom

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 288 pp. $25.99


Assessing the First Five Years

By Michael Chertoff

University of Pennsylvania. 203 pp. $24.95

In a single week last month, the U.S. government broke up an alleged al- Qaeda cell in Colorado, rushed aid to flood victims in Georgia and opened fire on three vans filled with illegal immigrants trying to break through the nation's busiest border crossing. The incidents were all reminders, as if we needed any, of the many threats to what we now call "homeland security," a big, sprawling idea that spawned a big, sprawling department to stop bad things from happening and clean up when they inevitably do.

Just over six years since its creation, the Department of Homeland Security is still too young for any definitive verdict on its success or failure. With its component agencies scattered around D.C. and some of its operations outsourced to private companies in Virginia, it has yet to become a whole that adds up to more than its parts. Its first two secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, left no consistent legacy to guide what the government's third-largest department should be doing -- and more important, why. For Janet Napolitano, the secretary now sorting through that inheritance, the reflections of her predecessors leave more questions than answers.

Tom Ridge's "The Test of Our Times" is much like his tenure as secretary: folksy, deferential, unfortunately error-prone and yet, on the biggest questions of the post9/11 years, rather sensible. The book's release has been a public relations nightmare, making Ridge once again look inept against more experienced bureaucratic rivals. He had to back down from his speculation that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to raise the terror alert just before the 2004 presidential election for political reasons.

In contrast, Michael Chertoff, the tough Justice Department prosecutor who succeeded Ridge in 2005, has written a book that is smart, coherent and disciplined, much like the successful reorganization he oversaw at the agency. Sparingly titled "Homeland Security," it is a collection of essays written for policy journals and was quietly released by a university press. Yet Chertoff's conclusions about how the United States should deal with the new security threats are more troubling than Ridge's because Chertoff would place far fewer limits on the exercise of state power in the name of fighting terrorism.

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