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Tom Ridge Steps Down as Homeland Security Chief

Aired November 30, 2004 - 14:39   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Something else, of course, that we've been covering besides the president meeting with the Canadian prime minister, and that is the resignation of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. Word broke just a short time ago that he would be giving his resignation. And we actually just received his letter of resignation that he will be giving about 2:45 Eastern time.
I'm just going to condense it with a couple of the sentences. It's a page full of remarks. He addresses it: "Dear Mr. President, since September 11, 2001, you have led both our national and international effort to bring bin Laden, al Qaeda to justice and eliminate the global threat of terrorism."

He goes on in the letter, saying, but after more than 22 consecutive years of public service, it's time to give personal and family matters a higher priority. With your concurrence, it is my desire to continue to serve as Secretary until February 1, 2005 or and until the Senate confirms my successor."

Down in the bottom paragraph, he finalizes the letter, saying, "One of the few consolations for the families affected by the tragedy of Flight 93 is the fact that the passengers and crew, knowing their fate, fought back to avoid an even greater tragedy. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to fight back."

You'll remember Flight 93, that plane that landed in Pennsylvania where the crew and passengers stormed the cockpit because they knew what was going to take place. You remember Lisa Beamer. Last words of her husband, "Let's roll." "With gratitude and friendship, Tom Ridge." We're going to take it live as soon as he steps to the podium. Quick break. We'll be right back.

PHILLIPS: Two minutes or less, we're expected to see Tom Ridge step to the podium for his official announcement. The resignation as secretary of homeland security. It's a story we broke not long ago. Jeanne Meserve working it from Washington, D.C.

As we monitor the room here, where he will step up to the podium. Jeanne, just a few minutes away, why don't we just talk about -- I guess it's really not a complete surprise. We saw a number of secretaries step down within the past couple of weeks, and there was a lot of chatter that Tom Ridge would resign. So it doesn't come as a complete surprise.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Certainly not, Kyra. Telegraphed well in advance that he was going to be leaving this job. The question remains, where is he going to go? Obviously, this is a very high interest area. There would be a lot of opportunities for Tom Ridge out in the big wide world. But it's unclear as yet as to whether he's chosen where he will go.

I've spoken this afternoon with several people who are close to Tom Ridge. They say they do not believe he has made any decisions as yet, partially because he's limited in who he can talk to by his present job. But clearly in the weeks and months ahead, he's going to be exploring things.

Among the things that have been mentioned, the possibility of working with a consulting firm, a defense contractor or even a big law firm, perhaps one that deals with Homeland Security matters. Under ethics law, he's forbidden from lobbying his own department for a year after he leaves. But clearly this is a man with considerable experience and expertise and with contacts that could prove valuable in many arenas.

PHILLIPS: Sure, 22 years in public service. He served as the first assistant to the president for Homeland Security, then the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. A tremendous task, 180,000 employees dealing with, of course, prevention, protection, response when it comes to terrorism. Here on our homeland, tackling a number of issues from travel to preparing for disasters, to dealing with immigration and borders. I mean, that's a lot to take on. He's achieved a lot, but he's also faced a lot of challenges, right, Jeanne?

MESERVE: Yes, it really was a daunting challenge to try and put this together and from the start, there have been people that have been skeptical that it ever will really work. And there -- he wasn't dealt a very good hand. Some people would say he was not given enough money to really do the job.

Someone I was speaking with this morning said when you see this sort of merger happen in the corporate world, there's a lot of money spent to integrate different systems, to do a lot of cross-training and so forth. That kind of investment has never been made at the Department of Homeland Security. They just sort of put it all together and hoped that they'd figure out a way to work together.

It has not been a perfect system thus far. And many of the people to whom I've spoken in the last several weeks have said they hope the new secretary will bring considerable management skills to the job that perhaps will make it a little bit more successful, will bring about the sort of synergies that they hope for.

PHILLIPS: He's stepping up to the podium right now, Jeanne. Let's listen in.

TOM RIDGE, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: How are you? Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

Earlier today, I submitted a formal letter of resignation to the president. And with his concurrence, it is my desire to continue to serve as secretary of homeland security through February 1st of next year unless my successor is confirmed by the Senate earlier. It's obviously a very difficult decision, but a decision that I was please to be able to communicate in a personal way with my leadership team earlier today as well.

We have, I don't know, 40 or 50 of the most incredible Americans who have been an integral part of the leadership team of this department from all walks of life that are on a two-day off-site session as we look at some budget matters and we do some strategic planning for the next five years. And I was also able to communicate by e-mail to the 180,000 men and women with whom I've been privileged to work for nearly two years.

I think we've accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. As I said to the president, there will always be more work for us to do in homeland security, but if you take a look at many of the innovations, the improvements to security, the enhancements to safety at ports of entry, the partnerships that we've developed with the state and locals and the private sector, just all in all, I think it's a reflection of the commitment and the dedication and the energy and the professionalism, really the combined power of about 180,000 people strong.

I know I've said to many of my co-workers, not only in Washington, but around the country during my tenure as their secretary that on a day-to-day basis, one could say that individual decisions that these men and women make out there at ports of entry have as much to do with the security of the country as any individual decisions we might make here at headquarters.

As I said to you many times before, we have to be right a billion-plus times a year, meaning we have to make literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of decisions every year or every day, and the terrorists only have to be right once.

The president has given me an extraordinary opportunity to serve my country in this incredible period since September 11th, 2001.

I will always be grateful for his call to service. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve my country with this president as its leader.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Ridge, since you're the first person to have this job as secretary of the Homeland Security Department, what would you say to your successor about how demanding a job it is? From the first moment you get up until you go to bed at night, is it just exhausting?

RIDGE: Well, it's no more exhausting than the work that I think most of my cohorts do in headquarters around the country.

I mean, there is a very specific job to do. There are many dimensions to the job. You have to be prepared to work like literally hundreds of thousands of people who work for government and elsewhere work. You have to work as long as it takes to get the job done on a day-to-day basis. And I think I would say to my successor that the opportunity to continue on a day-by-day basis to make your country safer and more secure within the constitutional framework is an enormous challenge and a great opportunity for leadership and to engage, frankly, our partners, not only within the federal government, but at the state level, the local level and our international partners as well.

Homeland security has never been to me just a department. It is about the integration of a country and taking the resources and the capabilities and the capacities we have in the federal government, the state level, the local level, the private sector, the academic community, you name it, and making sure that they are all engaged in a fundamental way, in a certain way that collectively we as a country are safer and more secure.

So I'd tell my successor: You get a phenomenal job at an extraordinary time, and you can do it -- hopefully you can go to work every day and enjoy it as much as I did.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about your future? What's next for you, private sector or government? And can you walk us through your decision? Why...

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I'm just going to step back after 22- plus years of public service, in a row. I'm going to sit back a little bit, breath deeply and then decide.

So I can't go down that path very far with you. So I just have to...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) why leave?

RIDGE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) well, I think I can.

And basically, it just comes down to some things I had been postponing for years and years and years. I said I wanted to raise some personal and family matters to a slightly higher priority.

And it's not unique to me. I mean, anybody in public service -- and anybody, I don't care whether you're wearing a military uniformed or you're engaged in a nonmilitary way in public service at the state, local, federal level, the whole family puts the public-service uniform on.

And when you are working at this level on these kinds of critical issues -- and again, it's not unique to me -- but, you know, there are opportunities that you may have planned with your family, occasions to be with the family that you miss.

I mean, when I was governor, I had a chance to have a little bit -- slightly -- manage my schedule a little bit differently. And I actually coached my daughter's softball team for several years.

That's just not something that I would be available to do now, but I am looking forward to going to my son's rugby games. You know, so there are just a lot of things out there on the personal level that I just would like to have a little bit more time to do.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) consider another cabinet job?

RIDGE: Well, everybody knows I love public service. I mean, I did it there for 22 years.

But I just want to step back and pay a little more attention to some other personal matters.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you have said frequently that you've accomplished a lot, but there's still more to be done.

RIDGE: True.

QUESTION: I know that there are important issues pending with regard to biometrics with U.S.-VISIT.

RIDGE: Right.

QUESTION: You have problems still combining ICE and the CDE people; they're at each other's throats.

But I wondering if you can tell us what is your single biggest disappointment. What is the one thing that you thought would be easier and have you not been able to accomplish? What surprising disappointment you may have encountered?

RIDGE: First of all, I want to go back to a couple aspects of the question, if I might.

First of all, one of the things I've had the opportunity to do as secretary is see what America has done in response to 9/11 and particularly to see what my co-workers are doing.

And admittedly, one of the initial challenges when we inherited the legacy of Customs and INS was to merge these units. And by and large, while admittedly change is always difficult, there has been significant changes that have occurred that, frankly, have made us safer and more effective and give us a surge capacity at our ports of entry and the like.

And I don't think, in a department where we've had to move so quickly and change so rapidly, the notion that there might be some people out there that are still a little uncomfortable with it is not surprising to me.

But we continue to work our way through whatever these irritants are to give people the comfort level so they're more worried about securing the country rather than job security. I think we've done a pretty good job in that regard.

I haven't been disappointed a single day I've been secretary. However, there have been days -- let me put it a little more blunt. I like going to work everyday; there are days I've just enjoyed even more.

I guess there is a -- as I look back on nearly two-plus years, well, there are no disappointments. There are certain things I wish we could probably accomplish a little bit earlier.

I mean, there is enormous international dimension to securing the homeland. And we have been very aggressive over the past year, but there was a year there where I wish we would have initiated the discussions on a bilateral basis or worked with the European Union.

We're in the process of building our team; I understand that. But much of what we do as it affects our borders involves the engagement and the agreement of our allies around the world.

What I have discovered is that when we sit down, make our case, discuss, negotiate finding a common solution of mutual benefit, we've made a lot of progress. Part of me wishes we'd have started a little bit earlier, but there were other things that, it seemed at the time, were higher priorities.

Some days we've made -- felt a greater sense of achievement or progress than other days. But by and large, there have been no disappointments.

Probably a few things I would liked to have done differently within the organization, some of the things we're changing now, but all in a matter of merging 22 different units and departments, 180,000 people, you can't expect it to get it your way, the right way, the first time.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, one of the things you have done that the public is probably going to remember is the color-coded threat system that you initiated, and there continues to this day to be a lot of debate about whether that system actually does what it's supposed to do.

As you get ready to sort of step back now, do you feel that that is the right way to go about, you know, doing that, or do you think there might be a better way that your successor should think about?

RIDGE: First of all, that is a system that quite a few people worked on, labored over for months and months when I was in the White House.

And we took a look at the other systems that existed around the world. We took a look at what the Department of Defense does and the Department of State does. And we certainly took a look at the system or the nonsystem we used for the first couple times when the director of the FBI, the attorney general and I went out and basically said, America, we think the threat level is higher.

I mean, so you either have the system we will have, we took a look at some of the systems elsewhere around the world, or the nonsystem that nobody was happy with, including individuals, primarily me, was out there talking very appropriately with the public.

I think this Homeland Security Advisory System has been refined and matured to the point where it serves two purposes.

One, it is just a general signal to America generally that a majority -- there's a consensus within the president's Homeland Security Council that the threat tomorrow is greater than the threat today.

And secondly, it is a signal to the security and law enforcement professionals around the country they have to ramp up security.

It has demonstrated, I think, its maturity in the sense that we have raised the threshold.

Number one, we haven't raised it nationally for almost a year. We hope we can continue that because the last time we raised it was during the last holiday season, which we're approaching.

And secondly, this year, we were able because the information drove us to apply it in a selective, surgical way, in a very defined part of our economy, in very specific regions.

So I think it's a good system. We're always looking for ways to make it better, but, frankly, if there's one agency that errs on the side of divulging more, not less information to the public with regard to the threat, I think that's something that we take pride in.

I mean, I think America is prepared to deal with the reality in the post-9/11 world.

I think it's in our best long-term interests to share more information with Americans about the potential threat rather than less. And, hopefully, my successor will err on that side of sharing more rather than less info.

QUESTION: Do you have any plans to go back to Pennsylvania no matter what you do in the future.

RIDGE: No, no.

Well, first of all, I'm going to be around here for a while, because I've moved my son out of -- my family around a couple times over the past three years, and he still has a couple years left in town. So we're here for a while.

I had a difficult time in talking to my leadership this morning, I must tell you, because they're an incredible group of people. I mean, you know many of them.

Some are retired military that took the call of public service. As one individual told me, "We're at war again. I got to come in and help." There were other people who are active military, but decided to come in.

We've got people from all over the private sector come in. We have moms and dads with young children that still give us 12, 14, 16 hours a day. We've got somebody -- we've got a young woman who's a very talented person who works full-time with us, going to law school at night.

I mean, we've got an incredible group of people who just stay until the job's done.

So I told them this morning that next to that discussion, you know, when I called my family in, on a very short notice in September of '01, and said, "By the way, we're going to leave the governor's residence and we're going to move into an apartment, and I'm going to commute for the next year because the president asked me to come to Washington, D.C., to serve in response -- be part of a national effort, part of his administration-wide effort to make our homeland more secure and safer."

And that's exactly what I did. And I'm grateful for the opportunity.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) your own personal decision that you were going to leave now?

RIDGE: I started thinking much more seriously about it around election time, and November, after the election. I thought about it a little bit before, but serious thought as to when and under what circumstances after the president was re-elected.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can you say with confidence that measures taken by the Department of Homeland Security have actually prevented attacks? And in how many cases do you think that's true? How many times?

RIDGE: That's one of those questions that I could give you a very confident answer, and you'd say, "Prove it." And I'd (ph) be difficult to prove what I can't necessarily quantify.

But I'm confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit we've got additional security measures that didn't exist a couple of years ago, that from port to port we do things differently with maritime security.

I'm confident they know that our borders are more secure. I'm confident that they know that we've developed and are sharing information with the state and local law enforcement.

I'm confident that they've, basically through their own view of what we've done, that they know America is a different place to work and operate in.

I'm also confident that, based on what detainees have told us, that if you increase your security and your vigilance, that's a deterrent.

Can I tell you today there are X-number of incidents that we were able to thwart or prevent? I cannot. Am I fairly confident, confident that we probably have? Yes, I am...

PHILLIPS: All right, you're looking at two live pictures right now here. Obviously, on one side of the screen, you see secretary of homeland defense Tom Ridge. As you know, he's just officially come out and announced his resignation. He had sent a letter to the president earlier today, talking about his sense of purpose and the mission to make this country more secure.


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