Ridge backpedals on pressure to raise terror alert level
"I'm not second-guessing my colleagues," Ridge said in an interview about The Test of Our Times, which comes out Tuesday and recounts his experiences as head of the nation's homeland security efforts in the first several years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the book, Ridge portrays his fledgling department as playing second fiddle to other Cabinet-level heavyweights. As secretary, he says he was never invited to participate in National Security Council meetings, he was left out of the information loop by the FBI and his proposal to establish Homeland Security offices in major cities such as New Orleans were rejected.
His most explosive accusation: that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft pressed him to raise the national threat level after Osama bin Laden released a videotape criticizing President Bush shortly before Election Day 2004. Ridge writes he rejected raising the level because bin Laden had released nearly 20 such tapes since 9/11 and the latest contained nothing suggesting an imminent threat.
Noting that Bush's approval ratings typically went up when the threat level was raised, Ridge writes that Ashcroft and Rumsfeld pushed to elevate it during a "vigorous" discussion.
"Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld," he writes. "There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?' "
Although he prevailed and the threat level was not elevated, Ridge writes that the episode reinforced his decision to resign. He did so weeks after the election.
Last week, when word got out about Ridge's accusations, Rumsfeld's spokesman Keith Urbahn issued a statement calling them "nonsense."
Now, Ridge says he did not mean to suggest he was pressured to raise the threat level, and he is not accusing anyone of trying to boost Bush in the polls. "I was never pressured," Ridge said.
The former secretary and Pennsylvania governor, who now heads a security consulting firm called Ridge Global, also said in the interview that:
• He and his immediate successor, Michael Chertoff, recently were asked to speak with a panel considering changes to the color-coded threat advisory system for new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
• He is "dumbfounded" that the government still has no way to track foreign visitors who don't leave the country when their visas expire, noting that two of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country on expired visas.
• Government officials and members of Congress rarely discuss homeland security issues and have "lost the sense of urgency" about protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. Because of the economy and growing budget deficits, he also is worried about funding for future efforts to tighten security.
These people should all go to jail.