A Conversation with Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge


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Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offered key insights regarding the current threat environment, key challenges, and the way ahead during a discussion at The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) moderated by Frank Cilluffo, Director of HSPI.

Secretary Ridge drew upon his experience at DHS to provide the audience with useful context. He noted that the forces of globalization—vital to American economic prosperity—can also become conduits for terrorism. “It’s a challenge we have to accept as part of our world,” Ridge said. “The US must engage effectively with the world to confront these issues.” At the same time, Ridge cautioned: “We should accept the reality of a post-9/11 world. It’s about managing the risk, reducing the risk. You cannot create a fail-safe system.”

Secretary Ridge commented on the recent terrorist attempt to ship explosives from Yemen to the United States, as well as the plot by Farooque Ahmed to bomb DC Metro stations. In regards to the Yemeni plot, Ridge noted that “this is an instance where actionable intelligence probably saved lives... Good intelligence promotes aggressive action which prevents attacks.”

Throughout the discussion, both Secretary Ridge and Mr. Cilluffo cited the importance of sharing information and intelligence domestically between and among federal, state, and local authorities and with security allies around the world. Secretary Ridge said he was encouraged that even in instances where allies had been critical of US policy, partners in the intelligence and law enforcement communities had been able to work together effectively.

Regarding the sharing of Passenger Name Record (PNR) information for the purposes of aviation security, and in the context of imminent next steps and debate on this issue with the European Union, Secretary Ridge stated, “I think that PNR should be universal.” He continued to say that given the number of jihadi terror plots which have originated outside the United States, it was important for standard security procedures to be developed and implemented. Both the Secretary and Mr. Cilluffo agreed that they did not think this had taken place yet. “I’d like to think we’re in the process of creating a template but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Ridge.

Regarding first responder preparedness, Secretary Ridge observed that although the 9/11 Commission was favorably received, one of its recommendations—the need for first responders to have interoperable communications—had yet to come to fruition. “It’s not just important for a terror attack. What about a mass casualty event or a natural disaster?” said Secretary Ridge. “It’s unconscionable that we haven’t dealt with it yet.”

Mr. Cilluffo asked Secretary Ridge for his thoughts on the narco-insurgency in Mexico. The Secretary characterized it as, “an extreme situation which requires our attention. The cartels may not want to overthrow the government, but they are certainly seeking to undermine it.” Secretary Ridge said it was critical that more be done, but cited serious hurdles to success: pervasive problems with corruption and bribery among Mexican authorities; bureaucratic infighting between and among US agencies; and underdeveloped relationships between American and Mexican intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Secretary Ridge closed by reiterating his points on the new security environment and the need for American engagement with the global community. The diverse and complex threat environment, he said, “is the new reality, the new norm. Our security and economic prosperity depend on greater global engagement.”

Speaker Biography

Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge

The Honorable Tom Ridge is the president and CEO of Ridge Global. As the company's chief executive, Ridge leads a team of international experts that help businesses and governments address a range of needs throughout their organizations, including risk management, global trade security, emergency preparedness and response, strategic growth, infrastructure protection, technology integration, crisis management and other issues that encompass a diverse portfolio.

Following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, Tom Ridge became the first Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and, on January 24, 2003, became the first Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The creation of the country’s 15th Cabinet Department marked the largest reorganization of government since the Truman administration and another call to service for the former soldier, congressman and governor of Pennsylvania.

During his tenure, Secretary Ridge worked with more than 180,000-plus employees from a combined 22 agencies to create an agency that facilitated the flow of people and goods, instituted layered security at air, land and seaports, developed a unified national response and recovery plan, protected critical infrastructure, integrated new technology and improved information sharing worldwide. Tom Ridge served as Secretary of this historic and critical endeavor until February 1, 2005.

Before the events of September 11th, Tom Ridge was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania. He served as the state’s 43rd governor from 1995 to 2001. Known for his commitment to high standards and results, Governor Ridge delivered on his promise to make Pennsylvania "a leader among states and a competitor among nations." Governor Ridge's aggressive technology strategy helped fuel the state's advances in economic development, education, health care and the environment.

Born August 26, 1945, in Pittsburgh's Steel Valley, Ridge was raised in a working-class family in veterans' public housing in Erie. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, graduating with honors in 1967.

After his first year at The Dickinson School of Law, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam, earning the Bronze Star for Valor, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. After returning to Pennsylvania and to Dickinson, he earned his law degree and was in private practice before becoming assistant district attorney in Erie County.

Tom Ridge was elected to Congress in 1982. He was one of the first Vietnam combat veterans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and was overwhelmingly re-elected by Pennsylvania voters five times.

An engaging and dynamic speaker, Secretary Ridge regularly addresses audiences throughout the world on issues, such as security, terrorism, global engagement, leadership, technology and more. Additionally, the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security serves on the boards of the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and other private and public entities, and since 2005, has served as chairman of the National Organization on Disability. Secretary Ridge continues to contribute to matters concerning our nation’s veterans and, along with Gen. Tommy Franks (Ret.), serves as national co-chairman of the Flight 93 Memorial Fundraising Campaign.

Throughout his public and private sector career, Tom Ridge has received numerous honors, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Dwight D. Eisenhower Award, the John F. Kennedy National Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the American Bar Association’s John Marshall Award, the National Guard’s Harry S. Truman Award, the Pennsylvania Wildlife Federation’s Conservationist of the Year Award, U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s Good Neighbor Award, the American Cancer Society’s prestigious National Medal of Honor, the Mister Rogers Award, the Champion of Public Television Award, the Intrepid Freedom Award and the Esperanza Leadership Award. Secretary Ridge has also been awarded honorary degrees and awards from many national and international academic institutions.

Tom Ridge and his wife, Michele, have two children.


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About HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series

HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series spotlights cutting-edge security policy solutions and innovative research. The Series is designed to provide thought leaders in the United States and abroad with a uniquely constructive venue in which to discuss current and future security issues and challenges.