Friday, August 28, 2009

The Real Tom Ridge Book Controversy

The media has it all wrong about the real controversy in Tom Ridge’s new book, “The Test of Our Times.’ Many of them, and other assorted talking heads in The Beltway, are preoccupied with one sentence in the former (and first) secretary of homeland security’s account of the birth of the new cabinet rank department created in 2003.

That sentence states Ridge’s belief that the effort to raise the terrorist alert level just before the 2004 election was politically motivated. Although he names no one in that sentence, its proximity to the discussion which led Ridge to the conclusion suggests it includes then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and some prominent members of the Bush administration inner circle (but not the president himself). Since I don’t believe that Ridge intended to point the figure to individuals, but rather intended to comment on the political culture that existed at the time, The sentence may have been poorly placed, but in no way does it deserve so much media attention.

Critics of the Bush years in the White House of course leaped into the fray claiming it was further proof of Bush villainy in the Iraq war effort, and Bush loyalists came out swinging, charging Ridge with disloyalty for the sake of promoting his book.

The mistakes and mis-characterizations these two opposing, yet equally venomous groups, are many. Most important of all, the book contains many serious suggestions about how to fix and enhance the current state of American homeland security, and that is being lost in the current media-manufactured controversy.

First, some full disclosure. I am from Tom Ridge’s hometown of Erie, PA, and have known him for almost 30 years. My blurb praising the book is on the back dust cover. (The latter also means that I am one of the few persons who has actually read the whole book, which has a publication date of September 1).

This is not meant to be a review of the book, but rather to serve as a corrective to the current bombast of ego and political territory possession that has only just begun, and will probably play out for days and weeks in the hyper-media cauldron of the nation’s capital and its political class.

In August, 2004, Ridge was asked to, and did, include a line praising President Bush’s efforts for homeland security in his remarks. Ridge considers that a mistake on his part, and says so. As election day approached, Ridge became more determined to keep politics out of his department’s work, and when it was suggested to him by some to raise the alert after a Bin Laden video was released just days before the election, he felt it would be inappropriate, as did, he points out, everyone in his department, as well as others in the national security loop, including FBI chief Robert Mueller, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, and a some others, disagreed. Meetings were held, and the decision was made NOT to raise the alert. Flacks for the Bush administration have made the legalistic argument that no one explicitly said they had political reasons during these discussions, which of course was probably true since the way Washington works is that political motivations are almost always disguised behind deceptive rhetoric.

At no point in the book does Ridge directly criticize George W. Bush, on this or any other issue. Unlike the pathetic Scott McLellan, the former Bush press secretary, or former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Ridge waited until after Bush left office to write his book, and does not use his book to wreak revenge. In fact, one of my few criticisms of the book is that Ridge’s loyalty to his friend who became president prevents us from knowing what he thinks the president’s role was on security issues other than his successes.

If anyone should be upset with this book, it should be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Ridge has been most critical, in print and on the air, of the current Congress for not closing the critical security problem of regulating our knowledge of non-American citizens leaving the country. Since 2003 (put into place under Ridge’s watch), we have detailed information of visitors coming into the country, but we do not apply the same rigor to when (or if) they leave. Readers may remember that the September 11 terrorists legally entered the U.S., but that we did not keep proper watch on whether they had departed in the proper time.

Washington is filled with hypersensitive egos whose importance are almost always exaggerated in their own minds, and with those who, for a time, hold public office, elected or appointed, and consider it their “property.” Many media spectacles in The Beltway are overwrought skirmishes over the public perception of this sensationalism, most of which quickly devolves into farce.

In this instance, I am suggesting, the distraction could mean the loss of the important discussion that Tom Ridge has attempted to engender with his book, to wit, what is the true state of homeland security in the nation today, and what can we do to improve it.

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