A Tom Ridge We Had Never Seen Before

It was not the Tom Ridge we were used to seeing. Gone was the steely-eyed politician who once ran one of America’s largest and most high-profile government agencies, replaced with this humorous and most human American citizen. Speaking as a keynote at the GE Security Conference & Workshop in Hollywood, Fla., Ridge remained defiant, reminding most of the 700 security professionals listening why he was handpicked by President George W. Bush to head up the new Department of Homeland Security in 2001. But it was evident that some of the political brass had worn off as Ridge joked about being a “victim” of TSA airport screeners as he flew in from Washington, D.C.

“You know the drill: ‘Shoes off, palms up and arms out,’” chuckled Ridge as he recounted his experience of being chosen for secondary screening at Regan International that morning. “I’m getting used to being a private citizen again. The old joke in Washington is that if you jump into the backseat of a car and it doesn’t move, you are no longer in the cabinet.”

Ridge may no longer be the US security czar, but he certainly has not lost his zeal for offering opinions regarding America’s vulnerability. He defended the job the TSA has done in protecting the nation’s airports, admitting that no system is perfect. Programs that would incorporate biometric detection devices with a controversial frequent flyer identification initiative were among some of the solutions Ridge threw out to the audience with mixed reaction.

Telling the crowd that terrorism is a real threat to Americans and it is here to stay was a message Ridge delivered loud and clear.

“Terrorism is not a new phenomenon,” said Ridge. “The seeds of ignorance and hatred have been around forever. It is now being used as a means to an end by people who want to destroy us. It is a war on our value system, our political system and our economic system. For [Osama] bin Laden, this is a true economic war in which he hopes that enough economic pressure will reverse the politics he hates.”

As he lauded the legacy of the former president of Spain and U.S. ally Jose Aznar, who preceded him on stage, Ridge challenged his peers and the country to continue its diligence and to continue to support the current administration in its efforts to fight terror around the world. He stressed that homeland security is about the “integration of an entire country”, where every citizen plays role in protecting freedom.

He stressed a corporate approach to security preparedness, stating that homeland security is not much different than Fortune 500 companies managing their business risks.

“You have to assess where you are to know where you want to go,” said Ridge. “It is about allocating proper resources based on your threats. You have to manage the risk realizing you are never going to totally eliminate them in a country this big.”

He challenged the security manufacturers and security directors listening to be instrumental in developing solutions that would integrate people and technology.

“The technical agility we have in this country will help empower our people [at DHS] to do an even better job,” Ridge said, adding that it must take a combine effort of technology and security professionals to solve problems like America’s fluid borders.

“We have to realize that security policy will ultimately impact economics in this country,” said Ridge, relating how leading car manufacturers suffered supply chain delays immediately after 9/11 when the U.S. closed its Canadian borders.

“I feel pretty comfortable about America’s future. It is freedom that empowers us and it is freedom that will help us prevail,” Ridge concluded.