Ridge book shows clash of security, politics in the wake of 9-11

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When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and a third into the rural countryside of his state, Tom Ridge knew the day's events would change history.

He had no idea how much they would change his own life.

The whirlwind of 9/11 would sweep him away from his second term as a popular governor and into the twilight struggle against the nation's newly recognized security threats and the bureaucratic battles of a Capitol trying to cope with them.

Mr. Ridge recounts the victories and bruises of his years as the country's first secretary of homeland security in a memoir to be published next month, "The Test of Our Times."

Within a week of the attacks, Mr. Ridge would find himself in a White House limousine with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and an old friend and new boss, President George W. Bush. They were on their way to Capitol Hill where the president would vow retribution for the attacks, "at a time and place of our choosing."

Mr. Ridge liked his role as governor, but recounts that he felt that he had little choice but to accept the commander-in-chief's charge to supervise the new and sometimes confused security effort. His book offers praise for many of the workers and officials who soldiered with him as his role evolved from homeland security advisor to leader of a sprawling new Cabinet department.

He also lauds their commander-in-chief. In the ranks in between, however, he found a perhaps surprising number of antagonists and sharp elbows among the senior players of the administration he had joined.

And after a career marked by an almost unbroken line of successes in his rise from working-class Erie to the governor's mansion, he also encountered setbacks and unaccustomed ridicule from late-night comedians after public relations misfires ranging from duct tape admonitions to color-coded warnings.

While the chagrin from those episodes is palpable, Mr. Ridge recounts them with a note of self-deprecatory humor. His memoir is more grave in its recollections of the sometimes uneasy overlaps of politics and security policy.

"The darkest possibilities of the politics of terrorism became obvious in the summer and fall of 2002 as the midterm elections approached," Mr. Ridge writes. "Members of my own party carried out a campaign of shameless character assassination."

He describes how GOP operatives painted then-Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a triple amputee from wounds he suffered in Vietnam, as being soft on terrorism because, over personnel issues, he had voted against the creation of the department Mr. Ridge would lead. The assault included a campaign commercial twinning Mr. Cleland's face with that of Osama bin Laden.

"It was an early and brutal example of playing the patriotism card and set a new standard for low," Mr. Ridge said. "But the tactic worked and the GOP picked up a Senate seat. But in the end it was very much a pyrrhic victory. The accusation that we were playing politics was something we dealt with often, and the Georgia campaign gave those accusations a basis in fact."

Mr. Ridge is adamant in rejecting the contentions of Bush administration critics that the often-derided color-coded warning system he helped devise was manipulated for political ends. He depicts an atmosphere, however, in which the motives of some senior officials and Cabinet colleagues sometimes left lingering questions on that score.

The most dramatic example -- and one that Mr. Ridge said would help him confirm his previous plans to leave his post -- came on the eve of the 2004 election between Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

Osama bin Laden had released a videotape with one more ominous sounding but unspecific threat against the United States. Neither Mr. Ridge nor any of the department's security experts thought the message warranted any change in the nation's alert status.

" . . . at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm," he writes.

But that view met resistance in a tense conference call with members of the intelligence community and several other Cabinet officers including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensured. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld."

Noting the correlation found between increases in the threat level and the president's approval rating, Mr. Ridge writes, "I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?' "

The dispute remained open at the end of the call. Mr. Ridge's aides carried the word to the White House staff that the threat escalation would court accusations of politicizing national security. Mr. Ridge's view finally prevailed.

"I believe our strong interventions had pulled the 'go-up' advocates back from the brink," Mr. Ridge writes. "But I consider the episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington's recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility and security."

This was not the former governor's first unsatisfying encounter with Mr. Rumsfeld.

While Mr. Ridge participated in daily security briefings for the president, his department was not granted a chair on the National Security Council and he never attended any of its meetings.

"So, almost out of necessity, our discussions were hallway encounters. And [Rumsfeld] was not the sort of fellow with whom I could make small talk."

Mr. Ridge also describes a variety of contentious encounters with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. In the book's chief I-told-you-so vignette, he describes how Mr. Card stonewalled him on his plans to reorganize the Federal Emergency Management Agency along regional lines, a reform that Mr. Ridge believes would have vastly improved the government's ability to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

No plan would have completely guarded against the ravages of such a devastating storm, Mr. Ridge states.

"Even so, there is no doubt that many more people died and many more suffered than would have occurred if the government networks had been working together in the way that we had planned it."

Still, Mr. Ridge offers a loyal and usually laudatory portrayal of the boss he first met when they worked on the presidential campaign of Mr. Bush's father.

Describing his regular Oval Office briefings, Mr. Ridge seeks to debunk his critics' portrayal of Mr. Bush as disengaged and uncurious about weighty international issues.

"He asked hard questions and frequently probed for more details," he says of the former president. " Criticism was rare, encouragement frequent, and engagement constant."

The other most positive portraits in the manuscript are of the colleagues who joined him in the unprecedented challenge of cobbling together a new department comprising 180,000 employees from 22 different government agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to the new Transportation Security Administration.

Mr. Ridge appears proud of the overall job performed under the pressures of time and the real but amorphous threats of further terrorism. But he acknowledges the many rough edges of the new product.

In private life, he reports, he's been a chronic target for secondary screening airport security checkpoints manned by his former employees. One chapter begins by quoting a letter from an airline passenger complaining of theft by TSA screeners: "Tom Ridge -- what have you done with my panties?''

Early in the manuscript, co-written by Lary Bloom and provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by the publisher, Mr. Ridge notes his recognition from the start of the personal perils thrust upon him by his job.

"And if I suspected that my political career would be sacrificed, well, so be it: We are all expendable."

The eagerness with with many Pennsylvania Republicans recently embraced the possibility of a Ridge Senate bid suggests that his political prospects would still be alive if he were to abandon the consulting career he has turned to since his resignation.

But his memoir shows that the political and policy dangers that he foresaw were real, and he has the bruises to prove it.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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