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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Today's guest: Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge
Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge
June 6, 2003

Tom Ridge
Hello - thanks for taking the time to join me today on "Ask the White House". I am grateful that the President has given me the opportunity to serve this country as the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. One aspect of the job that I especially enjoy is talking with people from across the country who have questions about what we are doing to make America safer. I am pleased to share my thoughts with you here today.

Dari, from Niceville, FL writes:
Dear Secretary Ridge, I noticed in this mornings paper you too are frustrated with the color warning system for alerting the nation about terrorism. I happen to agree with you and I am wondering what replacement you had in mind.

Tom Ridge

In the post 9/11 environment, we need a public way to inform citizens as to the general level of threat and to direct law enforcement community and emergency personnel as to what prevention and security measures they should take. The threat warning system, a system similar to that used by the Dept. of State and Dept. of Defense for overseas operations, fulfills this important mission. There are many challenges associated with this new reality. The two most important are credibility and sustainability. We obviously worry about the alerts generating the appropriate response as well as the cost associated with the response. Now that the system has been in use for nearly a year, we will review the thresholds necessary to raise the threat level. As we continue to work with our coalition partners and secure more credible information about the threat, it is our hope that we will be better able to apply the warning system to regions, specific sectors of the economy, or just more specific targets I believe it is working well, but we need to make it better.

Robert, from Altoona, PA writes:
How do you feel when humorists like Capitol Steps and the Onion poke fun at you or your policies? And who are your favorite political humorists?

Tom Ridge
I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humor and enjoy a good story or joke. And I also think that humor is a very effective way of communicating serious messages. So when political cartoonists, singing groups or comedians talk about duct tape, it is a humorous reminder for all Americans to take a look at our web site ( to review our emergency preparedness recommendations and kit suggestions. When they talk about the color coded warning system, they remind us that the 21st century includes a different kind of enemy, international terrorism, that has America as its primary target and that we need to understand that we must be constantly vigilant and on the alert.

Scott, from Warren, Ohio writes:
Secretary Ridge, How hard are the tasks of organizing a new governmental department all while carrying out the huge function of keeping the homeland safe at the same time? Thank you.

Tom Ridge
Your insightful question highlights the challenges that all of the employees of DHS confront every single day. America should be comforted with the knowledge that in this department 180,000 highly motivated patriotic Americans go to work at our borders, airports, laboratories, ports and many, many other places to protect this country. At the same time, we are looking at all of these people and making decisions as to how we can improve their ability to perform this critical task. The primary purpose for the reorganization of these 22 different entities is to create more and better capacity within the country to protect our citizens and our way of life. The reorganization will result in stronger leadership, more training, new technology and ultimately better performance and therefore greater security for all Americans. Every day since the department was created, this country has risen to a new and better level of readiness. That must be our daily and as well our permanent goal.

Amanda, from Evangel Christian School writes:
Dear Mr. Tom Ridge,

How does it feel to work with the President?

Tom Ridge
The President and I have known each other almost 20 years. I know him as a friend -- now I know him as my boss. We are on a first name basis based on our longtime friendship. He calls me Tom and I call him Mr. President. I am privileged to be part of an extraordinary group of men and women that President Bush has assembled throughout his Administration. Several of us meet every morning with the President and Vice President to review our national and international effort to combat terrorism.

Mike, from Washington DC writes:
Are you a happy fellow? Often times you look very stern in your pictures. Your job is very serious, but maybe you should open your next briefing with a joke or something.

Tom Ridge
If I could choose the pictures I assure you most of them would be different than the ones you see. I also want to assure you that I relish going to work every morning, that I am surrounded by enormously talented people who take their work seriously -- but not themselves, and that there is enormous pleasure, occasional laughter and a lot of hard work that fills every day. My family still loves me, my three labrador retrievers always seem to be happy to see me regardless of what anybody says about my picture and life is good.

Mike, from Butler, Pennsylvania writes:
Mister Secretary, Allow me to begin by saying how proud the people of PA are that you are able to serve our entire nation the way you so diligently served as our state Governor. My question is this, how are the 50 states doing in upgrading their current security? For example, do State Governors regulary meet with officials from you department as well as National Guard Commanders and Emergency Rescue police, fire, etc.personel to discuss security risks specific to their state? And how do you feel about the issue of legalized gambling for Pennsylvania? Thank you Mike

Tom Ridge
When President Bush designed the national strategy to combat terrorism, he understood, as a former governor, that the most critical partnerships that Washington could make would be with the governors and mayors, the private sector and the academic community. We have a saying inside our department that the homeland will be secure when the home towns are secure. To that end, we work daily with our nation's governors, all of whom have appointed homeland security advisors, all of whom are working on statewide plans that are locally driven and all of whom will benefit in a significant way by of the $4 billion that the President and Congress have appropriated to support their efforts. These dollars will be used to train, equip and exercise both our "first preventers" and "first responders" at the state and local level. I talk frequently with the governors themselves and on a regular basis we communicate with their homeland security advisors. Sustaining this alliance with other levels of government is one of the most critical missions of the department.

Don, from Washington DC writes:
Terrorists, Iraq, Homeland Security... all well and good, but here's what I want to know... Eagles or the Steelers?

Tom Ridge
Born in Pittsburgh, you know the answer....

Josh, from Charlottesville, Virginia writes:
I was wondering what exactly in your experience made you the right person to lead our country's defense against terrorism?

Tom Ridge
I would like to think that the President considered some of my life experiences as being relevant to the mission of leading the department. The executive branch works closely with Congress. Not only did I serve there for 12 years, but I like to think I still have some friends on both sides of the aisle. The President believes that only a national effort can secure the country and working with governors and mayors is a critical piece of that effort. As a former governor, that is a perspective I share in experience that I can build upon. Having a legal background and my Vietnam experience probably didn't hurt either.

Dino, from New York writes:
Dear Secretary Ridge: With all of the extra security and the Patriot Act why hasn't the threat level gone below elevated since 911. It seems that we are safer now than at any time before the terrorists attacks. The formation of your department and the creation on the DOD's Northern Command would indicate that we as a nation are more than able to prevent any kind of attack. Wouldn't it be good for us psychologically to go down to the two lower threat levels to reflect the progress we've made?

Tom Ridge
The 9/11 attacks didn't make us more vulnerable, it just made us more aware of our vulnerabilities. We are an open, diverse and welcoming country with the strongest economy in the world. And every single day since 9/11 America and Americans have worked to prevent another attack, reduce our vulnerabilities, and prepare for the potential next attack. We do get stronger and safer every single day. The success of our military, the support and effort of our allies, the work of the CIA and FBI, as well as so many other local and state groups in the country have seen to that.

Nonetheless, our enemy is patient, persistent and America remains its primary target. So we remain at an elevated level of risk to attack, while on a daily basis we enhance our ability to prevent an attack and reduce our vulnerability to one.

The threat remains fairly constant but our ability to deal with it improves every day.

Tom Ridge
I'm sorry I couldn't respond to all of your questions. This job has given me the opportunity to work with citizens throughout the entire country. Those whose job is somehow related to homeland security - be it in the public or private sector - are as committed to their day to day tasks and responsibilities as our servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those whose employment is not directly related to homeland security are contributing their time and their talent through organizations like the citizen corps to support the national effort to secure their fellow citizens and our way of life. We get stronger and better prepared every single day. As the President has said, we are stronger, more creative, more resolute and more committed to preserving our freedoms and our way of life than our enemies are to undermine us. We will prevail.