Ridge, Tom

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Tom Ridge

August 26, 1945

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Director of the Office of Homeland Security

"This historic proposal would be the most significant transformation of the U.S. government since 1947. The creation of this department would transform the current confusing patchwork of government activities related to homeland security into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland."

T om Ridge and George W. Bush (1946–) shared several important experiences. Both attended Ivy League schools (Harvard for Ridge and Yale for Bush), and both had been governors of big states (Pennsylvania in Ridge's case, Texas in Bush's). So it was not surprising when Bush, who had become president eight months earlier, named his friend Ridge to be the Director of Homeland Security in September 2001, a job intended to organize the government response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The United States was still in a state of shock on September 21, just ten days after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., in which terrorists flew hijacked planes into the buildings, killing about three thousand people. President Bush appeared before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives to describe in a televised speech how he would respond to the attacks. Abroad, Bush said, he would focus on tracking down Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–; see entry), believed to be the ringleader of the attacks. At home, the highlight was appointing a single person to organize antiterrorist efforts. At the time, few were thinking about the political consequences of the response; the main concern was national unity in the face of the attacks on the capital and the country's biggest city.

Modest origins

Although Bush and Ridge were born within a year of each other, their origins and childhoods were very different. Ridge's father was a veteran of World War II (1939–45), and after the war he and his family lived in government housing for veterans near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a major steel manufacturing city. They later lived in Erie, another manufacturing town near Pittsburgh. The Ridges were politically active on different sides of the fence: Ridge's father was a Democrat, and his mother was a Republican.

Ridge was a good student in high school and won a scholarship to Harvard University, one of the highest-ranked colleges in the country, from which he graduated in 1967. From Harvard, Ridge went to the Dickinson School of Law, part of Pennsylvania State University. Ridge had graduated from Harvard at the height of the Vietnam War (1955–75), when many students were protesting U.S. involvement in the war, which many people saw as a civil war between communist and anticommunist forces in the Southeast Asian country. Ridge, however, accepted the call of his draft board (the draft was essentially a lottery that chose young men to fight in Vietnam) and became a member of the infantry, the famous "grunts" who battled the guerrilla fighters of the communist Vietcong. As a staff sergeant, Ridge was honored with a medal, the Bronze Star for Valor.

A law career, then politics

After his military service ended, Ridge returned to Pennsylvania to finish law school, after which he entered into private practice as a lawyer. Not long afterward, Ridge went into politics, beginning with a position as assistant district attorney in Erie.

In 1982 Ridge ran as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. He became the first enlisted (non-officer) veteran of Vietnam to be elected to the House. As a moderate (less extreme) Republican in a Democratic-leaning, working-class area, Ridge was reelected five times.

In 1994, after a dozen years in Congress, Ridge ran for the governorship of Pennsylvania and won. Four years later, Ridge was reelected, this time with 57 percent of the vote, an unusually high margin for a Republican running in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about half a million voters.

Ridge made cleaning up the environment a central goal of his term, attacking the air pollution from manufacturing plants around Pittsburgh and the urban pollution often associated with Philadelphia. He also demonstrated his conservative (more traditional) beliefs by reducing state taxes and signing more than two hundred death warrants for people convicted of capital crimes (crimes for which execution is a possible penalty).

As a Republican governor in a Democratic state, Ridge took a more moderate course than Bush did in Texas. In 2000, Ridge's name was mentioned as a possible running mate for Bush's presidential run. (Dick Cheney [1941–], a Texas oil executive and former U.S. representative from Wyoming, was eventually chosen instead.)

Ridge was about halfway through his second term as governor when President Bush asked him to become Homeland Security Director. He was sworn into his new job in early October 2001, just a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

After a smooth start, a rocky path

In his speech on September 21, President Bush announced that he was creating the Office of Homeland Security, a cabinet-level office reporting directly to him. He said that Ridge "will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come. These measures are essential. The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows."

Ridge was sworn into his new job two weeks later, riding on a wave of national unity and determination to defeat the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks. In Congress, as in the country overall, politicians put party differences aside to concentrate on fighting Al Qaeda (pronounced al-KAY-duh), bin Laden's terrorist group blamed for plotting the attacks.

At the time of his appointment, no one paid much attention to the fact that Ridge was not technically becoming a member of the president's cabinet—although Bush had used the phrase "cabinet-level office"—which would have required him to be confirmed by the Senate. Instead, Ridge became part of the White House staff, instructed to help coordinate the domestic antiterrorist activities of such cabinet departments as Justice (in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] and the Immigration and Naturalization Service), Transportation (in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration, which was responsible for the safety of civilian aircraft), the Central Intelligence Agency (charged with uncovering plots overseas), and Treasury (responsible for blocking the flow of money to terrorist groups).

Within six months, the difference between "cabinet officer" and "cabinet-level officer" became more obvious and more important.

The honeymoon ends

Less than a month passed before political strains began appearing in the nation's antiterrorism efforts. In November 2001, senators asked Ridge to appear as a witness before committees looking into the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. response. The White House refused. Normally, committees in the Senate or the House of Representatives can order cabinet members, who must be approved by the Senate before taking office, to testify. But the White House argued that Ridge was an adviser to the president, not a cabinet officer, and he could not be required to testify.

The president got his way, even when one congressional committee after another asked Ridge to testify and he refused, on orders from the White House. But the refusal had a political price. It annoyed and even insulted some senators, who traditionally feel it is their job to oversee the activities of the White House and to offer their advice on running the government.

Even as early as November 2001, the argument began to take on political overtones. Democrats in the Senate were sharply critical of the White House's refusal to let Ridge testify. Republican senators said they understood the position of the Republican-controlled White House.

In spring 2002 the political tensions increased after information came to light that the FBI had received some pieces of information that, if it had been handled differently, might have alerted the government to the plot against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But still the White House refused to allow Ridge to appear as a witness before congressional committees.

Now playing: Divorce Court

In March 2002 Ridge made his first major announcement: a plan to assign colors to days, based on how serious his office judged the threat of terrorist attacks to be. Based on an analysis of all available information from different government agencies, days were to be designated Green in case of a "low" risk of terrorist attack; Blue in the case of a "guarded" condition; Yellow in case of an "elevated" risk; Orange in case of "high" risk; and Red in case of "severe" risk. The color scheme reminded many people of a similar system for rating the chance of tornados.

At first conditions were judged to be Yellow. But as day after day passed in condition Yellow with no sign of terrorist activity, some writers in the news media began to question the seriousness and effectiveness of the Homeland Security program.

Then, in early May, two months after the color scheme was introduced, Ridge led reporters on a tour of his new command center, officially called an SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). Set up in an old U.S. Navy facility in Washington, D.C., it was located in an ordinary office building and guarded by private employees of Wackenhut, a civilian security company. During the tour, Ridge described the center as a place where a variety of government agencies could coordinate their actions in the case of a future terrorism emergency.

But reporters noticed that unlike emergency command centers set up by the White House or the Pentagon, which are housed underground and designed to operate in the wake of a nuclear attack, Ridge's facility used normal commercial telephones (which failed widely during the 9/11 attacks) and 50-inch (127-centimeter) big-screen televisions available from discount electronics stores. On the day of the tour, one of the televisions intended to display video conferences by government officials during a national emergency was tuned into a daytime television program called Divorce Court. The Homeland Security program was accused of being a public relations show that lacked substance in fighting terrorism.

Shortly thereafter, the FBI director admitted that his agency had missed signals prior to September 11 that Al Qaeda was planning an attack. Some FBI agents complained that the national headquarters had refused to support their efforts to investigate one man who was later accused of being involved in planning the attack.

In the meantime, senators who were annoyed by the White House's refusal to let Ridge testify complained that other government agencies that he was supposed to coordinate rarely informed him in advance of taking their own antiterrorist actions or announcing their plans.

The role of politics in a national emergency

Shortly after 9/11, Bush declared war on terrorism, and public opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority—more than 90 percent—of the American people supported the president. The crisis and the response seemed to put the fight against terrorism above politics.

It took less than six months for this feeling to give way to the more familiar give-and-take of politics, and Ridge became tangled in these quarrels even before he had time to take office supplies out of their packaging in his new crisis coordination center.

Elected senators strongly claimed they had a right to be consulted on how to run the nation's war on terrorism, while the president argued he should be left alone to direct the campaign as he and his advisers saw fit.

Ridge and his operations became a target of criticism, even ridicule, that was indirectly aimed at the president. Like the Harvard graduate who agreed to fight in the infantry in Vietnam, Ridge found himself taking political fire for his superiors in a fight where he was a foot soldier.

For More Information


Daalder, Ivo, and J.M. Destler. "Advisors, Czars, and Councils: Organizing for Homeland Security." National Interest, Summer 2000, p. 66.

Freedburg, Sydney, Jr. "Shoring Up America." National Journal, October 20, 2001, p. 3,238.

Kelly, Patrick. "Tom Ridge." Current Biography. February 2001, p. 47.