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The Nation

Security Czar Ridge Resigns

The ex-Pennsylvania governor is the latest to leave Bush's Cabinet. Experts give his efforts to enhance post-9/11 safety mixed reviews.

December 01, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Declaring that the United States has become a much harder target for terrorists to strike, Tom Ridge announced his resignation Tuesday after nearly two years as the nation's first Homeland Security secretary.

A former governor of Pennsylvania and a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, Ridge said he wanted to spend more time with his children after two decades in public service. Ridge, 59, has a daughter in college and a son in high school. He is the seventh member of the 15-member Cabinet to announce his resignation since President Bush's reelection.

Among possible successors to Ridge are Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, and White House Homeland Security advisor Frances Townsend. Another possibility is Raymond W. Kelly, the New York City police commissioner who was U.S. Customs commissioner in the Clinton administration.

Ridge was named the nation's first Homeland Security advisor in October 2001 as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Subsequent legislation in Congress led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002. Ridge took on a gargantuan task in building the department, melding 22 agencies with vastly different missions and levels of effectiveness into a cohesive and responsive network.

His responsibilities have included immigration and airport security, as well as rescuing mariners in distress and tracking down counterfeit currency. Overseeing a $32-billion budget and 180,000 employees, he achieved mixed results.

"Somebody had to take on the job of trying to put this whole thing together, and I think he did a reasonably good job," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

"But my biggest concern is that there never seems to have come out of DHS any real priority setting for where we could get the most bang for the buck in security spending," he added.

As a result, Poole said, national priorities remain skewed. Billions of dollars have been spent to secure airports, while only tens of millions were allotted to secure other transit systems. Wyoming gets more domestic security aid on a per capita basis than does California.

"While Ridge has performed admirably in a near-impossible job, the nature of that job has, in effect, diminished his star a bit," said independent political analyst Charlie Cook. "It's not that he did anything wrong or badly, it's just that it was hard for him to show his stuff and get credit for his talents."

Ridge's tenure includes significant accomplishments, but he will also leave his successor some festering problems.

On the whole, aviation and border security have been bolstered noticeably under Ridge, and port security enhancements are taking root.

Emergency communication between the federal government and its state and local counterparts is much better, as is coordination with critical industries, such as railroads and nuclear power.

"I am confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit, we've got additional [airport] security measures that didn't exist a couple of years ago," said Ridge. "I'm confident they know that the borders are more secure.... 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."

Ridge also cultivated a close relationship with Mexico, at times taking a more visible role than did Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. He also aimed to ease the concerns of those who feared a backlash against foreigners after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We hope to see as his successor in that position somebody who has the sense of balance that Secretary Ridge brought to it," said Crystal Williams, the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. liaison to the department.

Nonetheless, some security loopholes remain. And the department faces challenges in managing complex new technologies and discontent within some of its units.

U.S. transit systems, a target of terrorists around the world, have received relatively little federal attention.

Even at airports, passengers are not routinely screened for explosives on their persons or in carry-on items, although checked luggage is.

Several technology procurements could run over budget and fail to meet lofty expectations. Among them is US-VISIT -- U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology -- a digital fingerprinting and photography system designed to check foreign visitors against security watch lists.

Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, has criticized the system, saying it is based on antiquated technology that cannot easily interact with FBI databases. Although US-VISIT performs well in verifying identities of law-abiding visitors, it may be less reliable in exposing a terrorist traveling under an assumed name.

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