No one ever said Tom Ridge had it easy as America's first Department of Homeland Security Secretary. While his backers will remember that under his tenure America suffered no terrorist attacks, his detractors will likely say that Ridge's legacy will be his more laughable approaches to domestic security. Remember the duct tape and vague warnings of "credible evidence" with no specifics? And who will ever forget the color coded warning system Ridge established. As one homeland security official told POGO, "He should have been fired the minute he came up with that thing."
Instead he should have spent more effort on TSA and specifically working to improve airport screening. Airline security - the marquee anti-terrorism issue - continues to be as tenuous as ever, at least according to Ridge's own internal watchdog, the Department's inspector general (poor training, poor screener performance). The "No Fly" list is a joke among security experts. And homeland security officers, like the much vaunted air marshals, have complained about Department policies and decisions.
Big Business benefited from Ridge's tenure. First he put private industry reps (who own 80 percent of America's critical infrastructure) on his advisory council, and then he made the council's deliberations secret. Second, he dished out millions of dollars in grants to billion dollar oil companies like ChevronTexaco and Citgo - meanwhile, state and local municipalities were all short on homeland security funding.
Ridge has gotten sympathy and slack from traditional critics of the Bush Administration's anti-terrorism efforts. "He was dealt an impossible hand," said Richard Clarke, the former top counterterrorism adviser to President Bush who resigned last year. "He was not allowed to make some of the key decisions about the beginning of the department. I think anyone would have failed under those circumstances."
Perhaps Ridge's biggest failing was his baffling need to treat homeland security with PR gloves. While private experts like Stephen Flynn (a former Coast Guard commander and current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) were talking specifics - how to secure ports, chemical plants, etc - Ridge was talking about vigilance and terrorism preparedness kits. It sent a mixed message, as though he didn't want to get into the meat of what had to be done to tighten domestic security.