A New Job for Tom Ridge

Last fall we set seven criteria for measuring Tom Ridge’s performance as President Bush’s appointed director of homeland security [“Tools for the Homeland Security Chief,” op-ed, Nov. 22]. Although we were skeptical about whether he could do his job without statutory authority, members of Congress decided to defer to the president, who said Ridge should be given the benefit of the doubt to begin carrying out his important mission.

Over six months into his task, Ridge has had both success and frustration. He clearly has access to the information needed to do his job, which was our first criterion for evaluating his office. But that information is still muddy, its sources many, and its usefulness often mixed—as evidenced by the color-coded system of vague threat warnings his office developed. Ridge has also had access to key decision-makers such as the president, vice president and attorney general, which was our second criterion. What he apparently has not had is success in making his case on the need for sweeping reorganization of the nation’s troubled homeland security agencies.

Unfortunately, no one knows for sure just what he believes about the need for reorganization—as a White House staffer, he has not been given permission to testify before Congress. There are reports that he wants much more than mere tinkering with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Border Patrol, Customs Service and other agencies. If this is true, he has not been successful in making his case. He may have access, but what he truly needs is impact.

Ridge has had his greatest success in the budget and personnel process, our third criterion. Homeland security agencies such as the INS and Coast Guard would receive more money and personnel under the new Bush budget than they could ever have expected during ordinary times. But as Ridge has argued in making the case against his testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has no power to spend, obligate, or audit money. At the end of the day, agencies must put their trust in the president’s budget office for the dollars and personnel they need. That reduces Ridge’s clout in ensuring that those dollars will be spent in a manner consistent with the overall plan for homeland security.

As for our fourth, fifth and sixth criteria—his staff, executive office space, and role in selecting key presidential appointees—Ridge has had mixed success. He is still running a minimalist, though apparently talented, operation, and he is still looking for office space within shouting distance of his home in the Old Executive Office Building. But it is not at all clear that he has had a role in selecting key personnel such as the new nominees to be surgeon general or director of the National Institutes of Health—both essential players in the fight against bioterrorism.

Ridge does not have much say over the operations and management of the homeland security establishment, which was our seventh and final criterion. As the recent events at INS suggest, homeland security depends on agencies’ being properly structured, staffed and led. The homeland security workforce is willing and patriotic, but its organizational infrastructure is weak. Yet Ridge can only stand on the sidelines as the media reveal one weakness after another in our security system. He can cajole, advise, influence, and arm-twist, but he cannot order anyone to do anything for good or ill.

Ridge himself may have made the most persuasive case for a stronger office of homeland security in a little-noticed speech recently. Appearing before an association of state and local emergency management officials, Ridge talked about the need for more coordination, better technology and simple accountability.

“As part of our consideration of the new 21st-century border, we are presently considering a range of options that goes from simply a new technology architecture that puts it all on the same database to a series of consolidations that could ultimately involve four or five departments,” he told the National Emergency Management Association. “There is no line of accountability. As you take a look at 21st-century borders, you have got to have somebody in charge.”

We believe it is time to nominate Tom Ridge for that job, both literally and figuratively.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is ready to begin moving a bill that will create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, with its director to be confirmed by the Senate. The need for that authority is clear as our war on terrorism moves into the next phase.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Paul C. Light is vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.