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2004-12-01

Homeland Security Gives "The Perception of Security, Not the Reality of It"

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Tom Ridge announced his resignation Tuesday after nearly two years as the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary. We speak with investigative journalist Matthew Brzezinski, author of Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security — An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State.[includes rush transcript]

Tom Ridge, the country’s first homeland security director, resigned on Tuesday. He is the seventh member of the cabinet to resign ahead of President Bush’s second term. Ridge announced his decision at a news conference after submitting his resignation to the president.

  • Tom Ridge, Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary announcing his resignation, November 30, 2004.

Tom Ridge announcing his resignation yesterday. He said he would stay in his position until February or until his successor is confirmed. Possible candidates include Ridge’s deputy Asa Hutchinson, White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend, former New York police chief Bernard Kerik and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Before joining the Bush White House, Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania for seven years, and before that spent 14 years in the House of Representatives. As Homeland Security chief, Ridge oversaw a $32 billion budget and 180,000 employees. The department, which merged all or parts of 22 federal agencies, was created in January 2003 following the 9/11 attacks in the biggest government revamp in 50 years.

  • Matthew Brzezinski, author of Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security — An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State. He is a contributing writer The New York Times Magazine and former foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. Read his Mother Jones article on the Dept. of Homeland Security: "Red Alert"

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Ridge, the country’s first Homeland Security director has resigned. He is the seventh member of the cabinet to resign ahead of President Bush’s second term. Ridge announced decision at a news conference after submitting his resignation to the president.

TOM RIDGE: I think we have accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. As I said to the president, there will always be more work for us to do in homeland security. But if you take a look at many of the innovations, the improvements to security, the enhancements to safety at ports of entry, the partnerships that we developed with the state and locals and private sector. All in all I think it is a reflection of the commitment and dedication and energy and professionalism, really the combined power of about 180,000 people strong.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tom Ridge announcing his resignation on Tuesday. He said — Monday — he said he would stay in his position until February or until a successor is confirmed. Possible candidates include his deputy Asa Hutchinson, Francis Townsend, Bernard Kerik, Massachusettes Governor Mitt Romney. Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania for seven years and before that spent 14 years in the House of Representatives. As Homeland Security chief he oversaw $32 billion budget and 180,000 employees. The department, which merged all or parts of 22 federal agencies, was created in January of 2003 after the 9/11 attacks and the biggest government revamp in 50 years. Now to Matthew Brzezinski author of a new book called Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security — An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State. A contributing writer for New York Times Magazine, former foreign correspondent. Welcome to Democracy Now! It is good to have you with us. Can you talk about the Department of Homeland Security and Tom Ridge’s reign there? Matthew Brzezinski? We are having a little trouble on the line but we will now get you on the line again. Author of Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security — An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State.

MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It good to have you with us. Tom Ridge. Can you discuss his tenure as, well, the first head of Homeland Security?

MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI: For one, it is not surprising that he announced his resignation. He made that clear in the spring. Officially he sort of said that he has kids ready to go to college and he was not earning enough money as cabinet secretary and he needed to return to the private sector. I think that’s just polite way of saying he was very frustrated. It is a thankless job being the head of DHS, mainly because there’s very little political support from the White House. The department is extraordinarily under-funded and does not really have a clear mandate in a very crucial area such as gathering intelligence. The White house decided that that prerogative would remain with the FBI And CIA and essentially created a very toothless paper tiger out of DHS. So, I think his tenure has not necessarily been a very happy one. He is quite popular, ironically, within the department. Everybody says he is a terrific person and a real conciliator. But he had very little experience in the battlefield of Washington, the turf battles that would go on and he has been bested time and time again by the likes of former Attorney General John Ashcroft who would take away many of the prerogatives of DHS, leaving some of the staff at DHS very disgruntled and Tom Ridge couldn’t do anything about it. So I think that his leaving is, first of all, not a surprise, and, two, I think he will go down in history with sort of a very mixed record.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Matthew Brzezinski author of Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security — An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State. Can you describe — well you don’t describe it as fortress in the recent article that you wrote — but can you describe what the Department of Homeland Security looks like?

MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI: Sure. I was one of the first journalists given a peek inside this colossus at least on paper. As you probably already mentioned. DHS on paper is huge. It is the largest government agency in the United States, 180,000 employees, 22 government agencies. So when I went to its new headquarters which was unveiled in march of 2003, I was expecting something the size of the Pentagon and I was deeply surprised that I couldn’t even find it. And looking around this naval complex where they were subleasing some space I was pointed by some gardeners — "we think there is something with DHS over there" — and they pointed me in the direction of this dank, dark court yard and there was a narrow fire lane of a back alley and I went down this brick back alley something out of a Dickens novel and at the end of the alley was a gray steel unpainted door with a little plaque saying the Department of Homeland Security. I think the fact that DHS on paper could be the largest government agency in the United States and in reality have an office that looked like sort of the janitor’s office at junior college, I think that spoke volumes of the sort of cynical game the White House has played with Homeland Security, whose primary role seems to be to give Americans the perception of reality and not — the perception of security, not the reality of it. We have seen this time and time again with many of the blunders they have committed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this, the idea of perception versus what actually is going on? Can you talk about the corporate lobbyists and how they have fought — for example, around the issue of chemical factories. And how close Tom Ridge is to these lobbyists?

MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI: Sure. Right after 9/11, when we sort of as a country we took stock in our vulnerability we came up with–holy smokes–one of the biggest was the petrochemical plants. We have about 15,000 of them across the country producing a whole scope of very toxic materials and we all remember Bhopal, India in 1984 when tens of thousands died, and many more were blinded, when a Union Carbide plant, when there was a mishap and released all these toxins into the atmosphere. So there was a real danger of a chemical Chernobyl this if the terrorists managed to infiltrate one of them and the sad thing is that our plants are basically completely undefended. We don’t even have proper fencing around them. So there was push in congress to put forth a chemical security act which would regulate fencing, lighting, guards, transport of these things. But the American Petroleum Institute which is the main lobby arm of the energy companies, and very close to many of Tom Ridge’s former employees, basically squashed the legislation so three years down the line we are just as unsafe as before 9/11. That’s just one of the myriad examples where corporate interests trump national security at DHS.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us another one.

MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, let’s take you remember the big drive for smallpox vaccinations. President Bush himself was inoculated live on national television and we were supposed to have millions of first responders to get the vaccine. The deadline for the first segment of this was last year when the first 500,000 first responders were to have received the vaccinations. I remember at a hospital in Denver which had 2,000 employees and there were only seven of them that had the vaccine. And in total out after half million only 33,000 got them so some place like New Mexico and Nevada and Arizona there was only 25 people in all those states that had received the vaccination by the time the deadline came and went. So I asked the doctors why is it that in your particular hospital that only seven out of 2,000 people have gotten them. They said well, frankly the administration sided with the HMO’s and insurance companies which balked at the idea that they would have to pay for sick leave after people got the vaccination. After you get inoculated you invariably develop minor side effects and are put out of commission for a few days and the military for example gives 48-hour leave to soldiers after they get inoculated because you feel terrible. And but however, in the civilian sector the HMO’s didn’t want to pay for the two, three days or up to a week sick leave that people would have to take. So the first responders would have to take this out of their own vacation time. Naturally they balked at this idea and when I talked to the doctors they said this is crazy we are spending all of these 100’s of billions of dollars in Iraq and we won’t pay for a week sick leave for our own first responders. He says he kind of wonders where people’s priorities are in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Brzezinski, we’re gonna leave it there. We want to thank you for being with us, author of the new book Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security.

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