Ridge Criticizes Both Obama And Bush Administrations

Former Secretary of Homeland Security talks Katrina and terrorism

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom J. Ridge discussed his role in the Hurricane Katrina crisis, terrorism, and his own political aspirations in an interview yesterday with The Harvard Crimson.

He played an integral role in post-9/11 governance when he was asked by President George W. Bush to leave his office as Governor of Pennsylvania to take the role of the first Assistant to the President for Homeland Security.

He later would become Secretary of Homeland Security, and would oversee the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Currently, Ridge is serving as a visiting fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics.

The Harvard Crimson: The establishment of the Office of Homeland Security constituted the largest government reorganization in half a century. What did it feel like to take on such a large role in homeland security after 9/11?

Tom Ridge: I felt bad about leaving a job that I loved immensely. I’m very proud and privileged to have served as governor. But in a post-9/11 environment, every American was asking ‘What can I do?’ and the President gave me an opportunity to make a contribution and hopefully most people will conclude that I did.

THC: When you left the Department, did you foresee the possibility of government mishandling an event like Katrina?

TR: Not only did we foresee the possibility, we anticipated it. One of my great disappointments with the government’s response to Katrina was that the procedures and plans that we had developed in anticipation of something as cataclysmic as Katrina were not applied in a timely or effective way. No one could have prevented the levees from breaking, but I think much of the problem with the Katrina disaster was the failure of political and government leadership at the local, mayor, state, and federal level.

THC: Would you take any personal responsibility for what occurred after Katrina?

TR: I think it was more of a leadership challenge, and for that I take absolutely no responsibility. My huge disappointment is that it’s not as if my team and others who were still in the department had not anticipated there might be a time when the state and local resources are overwhelmed by a catastrophic event. I regret, frankly that I wasn’t in charge because I think we would have done things differently. Procedures and protocols are not sexy stuff, but there are certain operational structures that we built to handle precisely that kind of event that were either ignored or deployed later than it should have been.

THC: Do you foresee the possibility of ever running for the United States Senate?

TR: No.

THC: Do you have any further political aspirations?

TR: I would like to help the Republican Party find its voice. People are worried about our messengers, but before we have a messenger we better figure out what our message is. I would [also] like to work with men and women on both sides of the aisle who bring a respect and civility to political discourse that I think we’ve abandoned. There are so many issues out there that are controversial and neither party has been willing to invest the political capital to solve them. I’d like to see us try to do it in a bipartisan way.

THC: Former VP Dick Cheney has said that Obama will “raise the risk to the American people of another attack.” Do you agree with this?

TR: I’m not going to respond specifically to Cheney because I think the White House has done that. The one caveat I would say with regard to how the administration has begun to handle this is that to call terrorist attacks ‘manmade disasters’ doesn’t make sense. What I’m concerned about is that the characterization of our effort against these extremists has rhetorically been minimized. I haven’t seen anything that President Obama has done yet that makes me fearful that we will be less than vigorous in our approach to dealing with these extremists. I just think the language is so politically correct – we ought to call it what it is.

THC: President Obama has been proposing some form of amnesty plan for illegal immigrants. Given your background, do you believe this is a correct plan for immigration policy?

TR: I said a long time ago that the reality of identifying and returning to their country of origin the X million of illegals who are here is a fantasy. We need to face up to the reality that Congress and Presidents since the mid-80s have failed to deal with the issue. Now is an opportunity to forge a bipartisan solution. We need to find some way to legalize their presence; not [by] granting them citizenship-we may put them at the end of the line-but not [by] sending them all back.

—Staff writer Evan T.R. Rosenman can be reached at erosenman@fas.harvard.edu.