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Homeland Defense: Tom Ridge Addresses National Association of Counties

Aired October 26, 2001 - 13:34   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Tom Ridge, the Homeland Defense director is speaking to a meeting of the National Association of Counties. Let's take that one.

We'll keep an ear on the State Department while it's going on.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: ... about 24 hours to -- it all happened in 24, 48 hours; I don't know, it was a blur.

But I knew that the vice president -- frankly, President Bush and Vice President Cheney had started working on the concept of dealing with threats to our homeland shortly after they took office. And I knew that Congress had started working on it a couple of years ago because there's been a great deal of literature that has been written about the subject as the nature of our world has changed dramatically. So that if you are a sovereign state, you are no longer concerned just about state terrorism and state threats to your sovereignty, but there are now the non-state terrorists.

Other countries in the world have been dealing with that phenomenon for a long time. Certainly, it's been a condition of life in the Middle East, Italy, time-to-time Germany, United Kingdom. We've seen isolated acts of terrorism in this country. The most, probably memorable -- there have been several others -- was the bombing in Oklahoma City.

When he called and we had this conversation, and I concluded that I did want to come to Washington and work with individuals, not only my friend, but I think has proven to be an extraordinary leader in time of great crisis. And that's the true measure of an individual. And I think he's demonstrated to America what I've known for a long time.

And so I was proud to receive the call. And since I spent a little time some years ago in a different war; wore a different uniform. I thought, well, I'm going to go down there and work with an extraordinary team that President Bush has put together, and that's John Ashcroft and Bob Mueller and Tommy Thompson and David Satcher, and the list goes on and on. Everybody around him -- the vice president -- they're an extraordinary team. And when I was introduced that Thursday night and I looked at my president and I looked at the team he had assembled, I knew that when I got to Washington in a couple weeks that some good work had already been done. And a lot of people had said to me, well, you've got an executive order, you don't have any budget authority, you don't have any statutory authority, you've got all these challenges, nobody's really thought about this before.

And it didn't take me too long to call on, not only my own experience as a governor, but somebody who just understands what a lot of people in America do every day when they go to work, and that is make their homeland secure. That's what policeman and firemen have been doing for a long time, we just never thought they were responsible for -- were part of the homeland security team. You have emergency management agencies in your county governments and state governments, and we always thought of them as emergency management people, but we never thought of them as part of a homeland security team, but they are.

Since I was the primary author of the Stafford Bill back in the '80s as a member of Congress, I knew that there was a federal emergency management agency already in place. So the notion that we'd come to town and just try to begin from scratch and start anew was not intimidating or daunting, because it wasn't accurate. There are a lot of good people -- hundreds of thousands -- who go to work at all levels of government, federal, the state and local, every day who were part of this team. But until September 11, we -- the country never saw them as part of that team.

Our ability to defeat terrorism will require the effort at all level of government and the public and the private sector. We are now conducting a war against terrorism, and there are two battlefields, there are two fronts. One front is in Afghanistan, the other's the homefront. This is a new phenomenon for us. This is unprecedented. Maybe in the back of our minds we thought something like this might happen, because there was enough literature out there, and some of our friends and neighbors have trained for some of these things; but in our heart of hearts, I suspect we said and prayed and hoped that it wouldn't happen. But it did.

So that's the reality that we deal with. It is a 21st century environment. And whereas county government, and local government, and state government, and federal government on September 10 worried about a different kind of security and worried about the prosperity against different challenges; as of September 11, there was a new set of challenges.

And that's, I think, why the president feels so strongly that we need to remind ourselves that there is one war, two battlefields. That's why he said it was important and, I think you agree that we need somebody in the White House to coordinate the effort that has been previously undertaken on all levels of government. And that's why I was proud that he asked, and honored to say yes, that I would serve with him and the extraordinary team that he's got.

And we know what's going on in the battlefield in Afghanistan. We get the daily briefings. We know we've got $1 billion worth of aid committed to the region. I think sooner or later the amount of money, humanitarian aid will get to Afghanistan; it will be about $1/2 billion. The region in total is going to get $1 billion. We've got the food drops. We've got America's children sending in money and letters to help feed and reach out to the children in Afghanistan. We know all of that.

We also know that we've got pretty good infrastructure in the homeland, but we have to work closely together to improve it. I think one of the things that terrorists thought, maybe that America was soft or we weren't up to the task, or that we just couldn't rally ourselves to deal with this -- I call them shadow soldiers, shadow enemies. They're here. They're the 21st century people that we have to deal with.

And we'll deal with them. We know that. We will deal with them. Maybe they thought we would lose our nerve, but we won't. As I said the other day, it gives new meaning to the word, you would have thought somebody was living in a cave to conclude that. You never know.

But even when we defeat bin Laden and when we defeat al Qaeda -- and there's so many people working hard, both in the military, the Department of Justice, the FBI and all these other agencies to interdict, harass, freeze their assets, go after them with every resource available to us. The war against terrorism will not have been concluded because there are other potential adversaries in this country out there who could potentially deploy the same or similar weapons against us.

Whoever thought -- we normally think in military terms with conventional weapons. Who ever thought they'd take a commercial airliner and turn it into a missile. Who ever thought they'd take an envelope and turn it into a weapon of terror.

Somebody asked me yesterday, if you found those individuals, particularly the individual or individuals threatening our community, our country with anthrax, what would you tell them? And I started to think about it; I didn't say then, and I wouldn't say right now what I thought, or what I'd like to do.

But I'm not sure you could rationalize; I'm not sure we have the same value system; I'm not sure that we think of humanity and civilization and progress in the world like these people. So it would be very difficult to communicate with somebody when you may be able to speak the same language, but you don't speak the same language because your mind-set is different.

So they're going to be around. And I think we need to understand that one of the challenges we have, and the president said it very precisely and very clearly in his executive order, coordinate a comprehensive, national strategy to deal with homeland security.

Now, I view a couple of operative words there. "National" is one of them, and probably the most important. It didn't say "federal strategy." It said "national," which means the federal government, our state government, our county government, and certainly we integrate local government in that as well.

And it didn't say just a public-sector strategy, it said a national strategy. So we have to integrate private sector resources over the years as well. So that is the mission that the president has given to me.

Right now, during this crisis, actually I think I've been serving from time to time as an ombudsman; I heard from Governor Bush a couple times, and Mayor Giuliani a couple times, and Governor Pataki a couple times, and the postmaster general several times over the past week. And trying to shift resources and make some decisions that help them respond, and been able to do that.

But the real mission, long-term, is to work with you and similar organizations, and with the private sector to -- not only to develop a strategy, but to implement it.

And I learned the term here a couple days ago when I went to brief a group of folks who represented the big seven. I guess that's the county organizations and the cities that -- they really deal with local and state government. Well, one of the things that I'd like to do, and I mentioned it to your president, is I would like to have my own task force of this group that I can -- that my team can deal with on a regular basis as well.

So we'll get back to you about that. I think it would just be a lot easier than seven meetings, and I think a lot of your interests merge and converge anyhow. So we will certainly put that in place, and be back to your organization and get that set up.

A couple of final things, and I'll conclude, and take questions or listen to your presentations. We need to assess today both short- term and long-term needs. We need to understand today that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. We need to understand we may not be able to get to the 100 percent solution as quickly as we want, but let's not quibble over the fact that we didn't get to 100 percent if we got 50, 60 or 70.

I think ideally there should never be a day, and there will never be a day in the future of this country where somewhere, someplace a group of Americans aren't thinking about how to improve their ability to prevent terrorist attacks; and there won't be a day goes by that people aren't thinking about how do you improve or strengthen your ability to respond to it. That's the 21st century world.

So this is a long-term, permanent project. So the mission the president gave to me was to, you see gaps, fill them. If you see strengths, build upon them. If you see people that should be in the process that have been excluded, pull them in. So it's a pretty broad license.

And I know from my experience as governor that -- and we've seen -- the country has seen, and the world has seen, is that our first responders are local. Now, I knew that. I'm not sure a lot of other people knew it until they saw incredible courage in Virginia, in New York City. And I will tell you that within hours after the plane crashed -- and it's a new definition of courage and heroism in Flight 93 over Pennsylvania -- but there were people rolling in from other counties to assist, not knowing what they were going to find. But automatically we were one in the emergency management people rolling in from other counties.

And in Pennsylvania, we had a very good -- I think a solid, very sophisticated system, integrated system with 67 counties. Technology assets, personnel; we ran real drills. You know, you can tabletop a lot of concepts, but if you're really going to be prepared; if you really want to be prepared, you got to run through the drill.

And so I see -- the immediate need in my mind is training. FEMA and most of our emergency coordinators, the whole infrastructure, it's a natural one to build upon, but it was designed to deal with the 20th century threat, and that was man-made -- that was natural disasters. There was some other training and in bio and chemical and radiological and nuclear. But look, we all know that basically it was a system designed to respond to mother nature, who's a pretty tough customer, as we've learned over the years.

But you've got this great infrastructure in place, and one of the first things I want to do and Joe Allbaugh -- has Joe been over here to -- Director Allbaugh, FEMA direct? Well, big man, big job, big heart. That's Joe. And FEMA works hard. And I told him he's going to have an even bigger job, because I see FEMA and its integration with your state emergency management coordinators and your county coordinators having an expanded role.

And so again, based on my experience as a governor, I know how well my counties worked, how well they were coordinated with the state system. But as I step back after three weeks on the job, based on conversations I've had with quite a few organizations, it seems to me the first thing we need to do is get training and equipment and integrate, perhaps, an expansion of the public health community. I tell you what I think we need to do on the front end. I mean, there's a lot of things we can do with the intelligence community and the law enforcement community.

But in terms of integrating all of these services together so we have a national strategy, I just want to assure you that you'll be very much a part of that; an ongoing part of that. You'll be a partner. The federal government can't do it alone, and we can't maximize -- we want do our very best unless you are included every step of the way.

Finally, I think you know that FEMA has begun going out to all 50 states and territories to assess capabilities. We want to be very constructive, which means we have to look at ourselves and be critical. Maybe some things we shouldn't have done -- we should have done before September 10 didn't get done for a lot of reasons. This is not the time for retribution, this is not the time for finger- pointing. This is the time to say, what do we need today to better protect us from tomorrow's threats.

And so let's set some short-term goals together. Let's develop a national strategy, and then let's work together to implement that strategy.

We will win this war. I don't think there's any doubt in my mind. But that condition or -- you know, I'll conclude with this, one of the challenges, I believe, for a peace-loving country, whose shores haven't really been attacked -- slightly more than -- slightly less than 200 years, is to make that transition to where we understand that our own country is under attack.

What's even more difficult in that transition, I think -- or at least as complicated, is that we're under attack from a different kind of enemy who is using different kinds of weapons. And weapons designed to fear, and weapons designed to panic and disrupt. We're not going to let them get away with that. We'll find them. We'll get them. And I think in working with you over the months and years ahead, we'll develop an even stronger prevention mechanism and an even stronger response mechanism.

So I'm grateful to have the opportunity to spend a little time with you. I just would tell you that I think these terrorists -- and right now we're focused in on bin Laden and al Qaeda -- but they picked the wrong country, and wrong time, and the wrong leader. And I think we've already demonstrated that to him and the rest of the world. But it's up to us to keep mobilized and keep demonstrating that.

The president is very passionate about planting the flag of freedom. And it's freedom from fear. That's what we have to defeat. Because terrorism is out there in all kinds of forms. We have to feel a lot more secure about our ability to respond. And with the help of you, I'm absolutely convinced we can get that done. And not only get that better sense of security, but create an even stronger security system to both protect us and then respond if we have to.

So I'm delighted to be here. I think you've got some presentations that you want to make. And I would be happy to hear them and then entertain any questions you might have.

Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, governor.

BROWN: Governor Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security director, speaking to a group, the National Association for Counties. Both the cities and the counties have held emergency meetings in Washington this week. That was the county meeting.

Just in truth, Mr. Ridge did not make any news there that we heard. He said again that this is a national strategy, not a federal strategy. That is an important distinction to him, and to you as well, that this is not a strategy for homeland defense that is simply top down from Washington, that all areas of government -- state, local, and national -- need to be involved.

He said, in a wonderful turn of the phrase, Perfect should not be the enemy of good, the point being there that it may be that the country can never be 100 percent safe or that any given policy is 100 percent, which doesn't mean, in his view, it ought not be implemented and the country ought not pay attention to it, even in its imperfection.

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