Tom Ridge: "Everybody Is a Volunteer"

America's new Director of Homeland Security emphasizes the need for vigilance from all quarters -- public and private -- to defeat terror

Just 10 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush announced the formation of the Office of Homeland Security and the appointment of former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to the Cabinet-level position of Director. The OHS is responsible for coordinating "the executive branch's efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States," according to a statement issued from the White House.

On Nov. 6, Ridge talked with BusinessWeek Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and Correspondent Lorraine Woellert about the challenges of his position, how to involve the private sector, and why he favors a decentralized crisis-response approach. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow. Note: This is a longer, online-only version of the interview that appears in the Nov. 19 issue of BusinessWeek.

Q: Governor, how is the war against terrorism going?


We have made good progress to enhance our ability to detect and prevent a potential attack and to respond if one occurs. But it is incremental, and we need to work daily to strengthen both capacities.

Q: Are you getting full support from other federal agencies?


To date, there has been complete cooperation from the agencies. [But] it's not a leap of faith to suggest that in the months ahead...there may be some resistance.

Q: You meet constantly with CEOs. Are you developing a World War II-style brain trust?


The President's directive was to create a national homeland security strategy. The operative word is "national," not "federal." It has to include private talent as well. I will look to the resourcefulness of business to help solve some of the problems we confront. I have met with representatives of the aviation, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, and sports industries. In the next couple of months, my discussions will be with every sector of the economy.

The best way to employ the private sector is to think like the private sector does. They move quickly, in a very innovative, decentralized economy. There are already companies that have been thinking about [terror] problems and solutions. My goal is to tap in to those resources as quickly as possible.

Q: You favor a decentralized crisis-response network. Does this loose security framework create security gaps?


Let me give you an example. Energy companies are potentially one of our greatest vulnerabilities. [Officials] in that sector recognize that, they have some ideas on security, and are looking for a partnership with the federal government. Our goal is to sit down with [all key industries], identify vulnerabilities, [and] come up with an industry-led self-policing effort.

This is going to require all of us to challenge each other with ideas, to constantly look for best practices, and to rethink everything we do in terms of security. Everybody is a volunteer in this effort.

Q: The President says governors ought to be free to devise their own security plans. But doesn't a war require some overall direction?


States historically dealt with emergency preparedness independently. [Now] there's a growing consensus to assist the federal government. For example, you've got Health & Human Services, the Justice Dept., and the Federal Emergency Management Agency assessing states' abilities to respond to crises. We're looking at communications, training, staffing.

If it's a national strategy, states are going to be partners. But there is also agreement among governors that there has to be a standard of preparedness [for] all 50 states.

Q: Can you rate the state of preparedness of key potential targets?


Instead, [I'd rather] talk about strengths to be built on and gaps to be filled.

Q: How about the public-health system, for starters?


Clearly, we've seen a need to extend capacity and decentralize much of the work they do so we can have more laboratories, physicians, [and] epidemiologists. States will be at the heart of any expansion of the system.

Q: How about nuclear-plant safety, and food and water supplies?


Energy generating and storage capacity is vulnerable. We've been working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to enhance security. You see it in expanded police and National Guard presence at nuclear facilities. Obviously, we need air cover. That's a short-term solution. But we need a longer-term solution, and that's why we need to engage the industry.

[Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd] Whitman has moved aggressively to do a risk-assessment. The same thing [is happening] with the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health & Human Services in dealing with food-inspection issues. This highlights the challenge we face -- developing a system to protect our most basic assets.

Q: Some state officials are puzzled by your warnings of possible terrorist strikes. They complain that vague alarms don't provide much guidance as to what to look for.


We issued two general alerts. The question is how we as a country deal with this heightened security, and we're all struggling to find an answer. We're not there yet. The only thing we know is that there are people committed to undermining our way of life, who turned a commercial airplane into a missile, who turned a simple envelope into a weapon of terror.

If we can take this sense of concern and channel into being watchful and alert...we will get through this. But emotionally and psychologically, this nation hasn't experienced this kind of uncertainty -- ever.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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