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Online Chat: Director Tom Ridge

MSNBC-Will Femia: Joining us from his office in the West Wing of the White House, Governor Tom Ridge, Director of Homeland Security.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Governor.

Gov. Tom Ridge: Nice to join you.

Question: It is clear that you are in charge of selling the idea of a new department to the congress, are you part of the package? Do you have a short list of people being considered for the first ever secretary of homeland security? Have you asked Giuliani if he's interested? Has anyone turned you down?

MSNBC-Will Femia: LOL! Don't worry, they won't all be like that. There's a lot of questions in that one. You get the idea though. Can you give us any insight into how the staffing of the department would look?

Gov. Tom Ridge: I appreciate the question. The President has asked me to continue work as an assistant to coordinate activity within the many, many departments that have homeland security responsibilities. The new responsibility added to that task is to work with Congress to develop an historic transformation of government in the form of a department -a Cabinet level department - of Homeland Security, and my energy and my focus for the time being is directed to both of those responsibilities. There will be a time and a place for a discussion as to the leadership of the new cabinet as well as the people the President will want to attract to work within it. But now is not the time. Down the road will be the time to discuss those issues.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Speaking of picking personnel...

Question: Why does your advisory panel that met today not include any Arab American or Muslim leaders or persons of color? Isn't that part of our intelligence shortcoming now?

Gov. Tom Ridge: First of all we do have a very diverse group of members within the President's National Homeland Security Advisory Council. There are men and women of color. It is a very diversified group of American patriots from both the public and the private sector, the academic world, men and women who've had experience in both the public and private sector, and there are still several slots to be filled. Because there is a clearance process for all these individuals, it does take some time to get to the full capacity of 21. I think we have 16 identified and we have several more. I appreciate your comment, it reflects the President's direction to me to make sure that the diversity of America was reflected on his Presidential Advisory Group.

Question: Why are you and the president suddenly emphasizing speedy passage in Congress? Is it a sign of the president’s lack of faith in the FBI/CIA? Are Americans in greater danger until this new cabinet position is established?

MSNBC-Will Femia: Are you guys aiming to have it approved by the 9/11 anniversary?

Gov. Tom Ridge: The President actually directed the Vice President back in May of 2001 to begin the process of examining the structure of the federal government in light of what the President perceived legitimately, and unfortunately so accurately, the real threat of international terrorism finally confronting and challenging the United States.

The Vice President was in the process of reviewing the current structure of government, along with a variety of other inquires that he made in outreach to the public and private sector when September 11th occurred. Those attacks accelerated the process and the President, acting with all the authority he had at his disposal created by executive order, an Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. That is the position I currently hold. We were tasked with not only coordinating activity among the various departments and agencies to further enhance security but also to design and implement a comprehensive national strategy.

The task of designing a comprehensive national strategy required outreach to not only members of Congress and the Cabinet, to the think tanks and organizations that had reviewed terrorism and its potential impact on American previously (the Heart/Redmond commission report, the Gilmore commission, the Bremmer commission…), it also, simultaneously, we were learning more and more about the al-Qaeda group. We were learning more about our enemy. We also learned and concluded that incremental change would not get us to where we needed to be in light of this new enduring vulnerability that we have accepted as a permanent condition for which we are responsible in organizing as effectively as possible to combat international terrorism.

Once the President made the decision to offer this bold historic reorganization of government to centralize information analysis, to centralize our efforts at the border and transportation, to centralize the strategic direction that research and development should take in this country as it relates to countermeasures in response to weapons of mass destruction, and to centralize within one agency the responsibility of working with state and local governments to prepare for and respond to a terrorist incident, the decision was made to be public and call on the Congress of the United States to complete its task before the end of this year.

Having served as a member of the House of Representatives for twelve years and understanding the many committees and subcommittees that are potentially affected by this change, I think the President realistically gave them a time frame within which it would be an historic response. It would be an historic merger of presidential and congressional leadership in order to get this done.

To put it in perspective, when President Truman called for the consolidation of the Department of the Army and the Navy and the creation of the CIA and other responses to the Soviet Union threat, it took nearly two years from the day he called upon Congress to act until the time they acted.

The Congress and the President share the same sense of urgency. The President appreciates the jurisdictional challenges that they’re going to have on the hill and the very hard work and heavy hard lifting that they’re going to have to do. If this historic transformation can be completed by the end of this year, it will be, I think by any measure, one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of the federal government in decades.

September 11th would be a wonderful anniversary and I know that the leaders of both parties are committed to getting it done as soon as possible and if they can get it done by September 11th, I’m confident they would.

Question: There has been a lot of criticism of the relative lack of power of the director of homeland security. Is raising the position to cabinet level and creating a new department the only way to have effective homeland security?

Gov. Tom Ridge: Actually, I think the President has proposed an arrangement of government that one, with the new department creates the most effective way for not only the federal government to work but it is clearly the most effective way to develop the strong relationships and the necessary partnerships with the states and local governments, with the 700,000 law enforcement officials around the country, with the hundreds of thousands of first responders the paramedics and the firemen and the EMT personnel. It is absolutely the best way to go about partnering with the private sector because they control and own about 80% of the critical infrastructure that as a country has a significant impact on our way of life: utilities, transportation, financial services and the cyber security needs that we have as a country….

So the President would have that department, cabinet level, operational responsibility, it would testify and be accountable to the President as a member of the Executive Branch, but also accountable to the Congress of the United States pursuant to the Constitution. The President also feels that the country and he would continue to be well served by the presence of an Advisor to the President for Homeland Security because there are still multiple agencies and opportunities for the new agency to collaborate with the Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the list goes on and on. So having both available to future administrations and to the country is the arrangement that I believe the President feels maximizes our effort to enhance security and safety for America.

Question: How will the government stop the Arabs and Muslims terrorists who come in the United States from Canada border, because Canada is a heaven for Islamic terrorist because of its weak immigration policies?

Question: How tight is the security at America’s borders with Mexico and Canada and what is being done to make sure illegal aliens stay out of America?

Question: What percent of those who get visas overstay them?

MSNBC-Will Femia: Lots of questions on the list about tracking visitors, issuing visas (especially student visas) and general immigration/foreigner concerns. Can you address that topic for us? Is a major overhaul in the works?

Question: What steps are we going to take to protect Americans from foreign students that may NOT be here for an education?

MSNBC-Will Femia: There’s the student one I was looking for.

Gov. Tom Ridge: When you raise the question of immigration and borders, you raise one of the critical and fundamental pieces of the reorganization plan. We have about 5,000 miles of border with Canada, nearly 2,000 miles of border with Mexico and if you take a look at the border along the coast of the United States of American, there are probably 95,000 miles of border there.

The President, several months ago, gave this office the opportunity to begin the development of what we are calling smart 21st century border agreements with our neighbors in Mexico and Canada. The purpose of the smart border agreement is to not only enhance security but to do it in a way that recognizes the very important economic relationship that the three countries have especially after NAFTA - recognizing that there are thousands of jobs in a lot of communities that rely on the daily flow of people and goods across the borders. To that end, working with our counterparts in both Mexico and Canada, we have begun addressing in a very serious and substantive way, a variety of issues that deal with the infrastructure at the border, people at the border, and cargo crossing the border.

We’ve also, in that course of time as we develop a new approach to our borders, think in terms of not just security against terrorists but the work we do in law enforcement on either side of the border in customs and everybody else. We’re looking to reduce the number of illegal immigrants, to try to deal with the interdiction of drugs and contraband. So these are very aggressive, very substantial initiatives that have been undertaken by the President and by this administration to deal with the protection of borders.

One of the initiatives that the President has discussed, and I think most Americans embrace, is the notion we want to do everything we can to remain an open and welcoming country. Unfortunately it’s that welcoming nature coupled with a trusting nature historically that has created some problems for us.

So what the President has proposed and what Congress has embraced is the notion of an entry/exit system. So that as we develop not only the new department of homeland security but working with the right agencies, we need to come up with a system and will come up with a means by which not only do we track people who enter the United States but we also have a tracking system to make sure that when that permissive stay has been completed, unless there’s an exceptional reason and they’ve reapplied for an extension, that they leave as our guests and come back in at some other time, perhaps in another place for another reason.

But we do not do a good job, we haven’t done a good job of not only monitoring people who come in but perhaps more importantly, making sure that what they were doing while they were here was not contrary to the interest of this country. And just as important, we haven’t monitored their exit.

There are estimates in the hundreds of thousands of people who have stayed once their Visa’s expired. It has been estimated that 40% of the illegals, and that number could be anywhere from three million to five million in this country now, perhaps more, are men and women who gained access lawfully to this country and then stayed beyond their visa.

Clearly an entry/exit system we need not only to help us do a better job of monitoring our borders and identifying people who come into this country, but the system is also needed to monitor those who stayed longer than the invitation was extended.

Question: What can Ordinary citizens do to prepare for a terrorist attack? Purchase Potassium Iodate, Doxycycline? Purchase first aid kit? Purchase firearms? Apply for concealed weapon permit? thanks for your advice

MSNBC-Will Femia: What do you think of that new armed neighborhood watch set-up in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn?

Gov. Tom Ridge: I think it is pretty clear that Americans want to be engaged in protecting their family and their community and I suspect we’re going to see different variations of neighborhood watch. I’m not privy to the details of the neighborhood that you’re talking about that has armed themselves. Obviously there are communities and states that permit carrying of weapons. I don’t think we want to turn the neighborhood watch into a civilian posse of any sort because I do think there is a role and opportunity for Americans to play a very significant role in our effort to secure out homeland.

If they’re looking for specific projects or direction, I urge them, particularly your readers and participants, to take a look at a website, but I would also say that when the President has said to Americans, “Be alert, be aware and be American,” there is probably not a single day since 9/11 that thoughtful, observant Americans have noticed something that was out of the ordinary, out of place, something that was inconsistent maybe with the rhythm and pattern of their business or their neighborhood or what have you, and have made a referral to law enforcement which is the best way to go. And there have been investigations undertaken with an eye toward potential terrorist activity because of the critical, observant eye of people who followed the president’s directions and were alert and aware. So I think that’s the best thing to do.

And as the President reminds everybody, take the kids to the soccer game, and don’t forget to keep going to church and do the best you can if you’re involved in community or youth services. We can’t quit being America as we go about being alert and attentive to the possibility of terrorist attack.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Speaking of noticing and speaking up, we got a few like this (kinda long one)....

Question: Governor Ridge,Will you please push the bureaucracies to accept the Navy’s (and Navy Reserve’s) intermediate term help/expertise to assist Customs in interdicting developed/submitted a detailed proposal to launch a pilot program to use highly trained Navy Nuclear Program personnel to augment Customs, until they are fully staff/equipped/trained to meet the new nuclear/radiological terrorist threat. The proposal was brushed aside by command level people in two government departments. Upon request, I will send you the proposal. I will also attempt to send a redacted version to MSNBC.COM, so that they can try to get it to you or your staff. Please have someone look at it and/or contact me.

MSNBC-Will Femia: We got a few “Rowley-esk” submissions from agents in the field who are frustrated with their higher-ups. Are you at all concerned about upsetting the chain of command since the President’s appeal to front-line agents?

Gov. Tom Ridge: The President made the appeal because he believes it. I happen to experience almost on a daily basis… I’ve been the recipient of some extraordinarily fine and appropriate ideas from professionals of every walk of life who have forwarded those ideas to the White House and Office of Homeland Security. So I would say to this person, if you’ve prepared a package and will leave an address or phone with Will, I will make it a point to get back to him and review it myself.

You should know that Secretary Rumsfeld is going to create a North American Command that will in time be the primary focus of any potential interaction between the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. The notion that we would use naval reservists just as we have used national guardsmen and Air Force reserves or what have you in other instances, not only in response to 9/11 but potentially in the future, is the kind of relationship that we want to work out in advance with the new North American Command.

But that’s still in the making and I’m intrigued and would welcome any suggestions you might have since port security and maritime security remain a very high priority for this country. So send it along and let me take a look at it.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Where should they send those?

Gov. Tom Ridge: You could send it to me at the White House or if you want to leave your number with Will, I’ll pick it up from him. I’m not he wants to put it on the web site, but call our office and I’ll get back to you. Just put it in an envelope and send it to me at the White House. Reference this conversation, this chat, on the envelope and send it on over.

Question: How can our government justify saying that it is going to prevent terror, when the whole idea of preventing terror sometimes is unconstitutional. Based on the fact that you never really know if someone is going to commit an act of terrorism until they actually do it.

Question: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Question: The U.S. has also declared a war on drugs. Under the current policy, what branch of government or method of recourse is in place to prevent the President from declaring any given suspected drug offender an enemy combatant and stripping the suspect of all constitutional rights?

Questions: A reader would like to know what safeguards will be put in place to prevent further abuse of civil liberties by this new government power? Thanks!

Gov. Tom Ridge: When you group all those concerns and questions, I think it would be appropriate to give you an answer that basically sums up what we need to do as we combat terrorism. I refer to the former director of both the CIA and FBI, William Webster, who is part of the President’s National Homeland Security Advisory Council who joined the discussion of enhanced security and the kinds of things we need to do domestically to protect our way of life and protect our fellow citizens, and reminded everyone (and of course I don’t think this group needed a reminder) that at the end of the day it is because we are a nation of laws and liberties and freedoms, and we do have a due process system, that we must be mindful that at the end of the day, whatever we do must be done in accordance with the rule of law we currently have that has made this country so unique.

And I must say to the individuals who have written, please know the terrorists are probably as well schooled as Americans in our rule of law. As you know, one of the first actions they take as evidenced by the actions of Mr. Padilla, is they immediately call for their attorney. Of course, he is a citizen of the United States and there are extreme circumstances that surround his apprehension and the decision to call him a combatant and treat him accordingly.

But as long as we have a transparent democracy that we have and a rule of law and a system of checks and balances and press that constantly probes and inquires and citizens that probe and inquire we can meet the goal of enhancing security and at the same time preserving our way of life, and at the heart of all that is preserving our rule of law that governs our activity and our relationships.

Question: Why is the administration spending money on conventional “cold war” weapons when we see that computerization, fingerprint recognition, sophisticated scanning devices and other high tech equipment is the modern way to fight the type of “war” we are battling in today’s world.

MSNBC-Will Femia: For our considerable techie following.

Gov. Tom Ridge: We have been deluged with technology demonstrations that have potential use today or tomorrow in one facet or element of Homeland Security or another. It is clear in the President’s mind, as I think it is in everyone’s mind, that one of the advantages we have in the war on terror is the creativity and the entrepreneurship of America, but particularly the technology sector.

The key is to determine the policy before we acquire the technology, but I see applications all across the board from IT initiatives that fuse databases and give different levels of government access to different levels of information. You can see the development of bio and chemical detection devices. You can imagine the employment of biometrics in the new entry/exit visa system as a means of monitoring those who we give permission to enter our country to be sure the ones who get the visa are the ones who show up at the airport or border or seaport with visa in hand. It also helps monitor their exit.

Literally from prevention and detection to preparing for an attack to the response, information technology and biotechnology, telecommunications … will be a significant part of our enhanced security. I’m confident that our technology community is up to the task of helping to defend our country. I see evidence of this everyday, applications of technology that exist and I’m sure new technologies down the road.

One of the four pillars of the President’s initiative addresses a very important question that you infer. We need strategic direction to the research and development in this country where public monies are involved. And under the President’s proposal to develop countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear), this new department or agency would set strategic priorities and then direct funding resources to meet those priorities. Funding would be based in part on threats and in part be based on vulnerabilities, but the responsibility of the federal government to do a better job of targeting its resources to technological solutions is significantly improved with a new department charged with that specific mission.

MSNBC-Will Femia: I know you’re going to have to run off to your next engagement in a second. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go? Perhaps on your addressing Congress?

Gov. Tom Ridge: Earlier today I met with nearly 200 members of the House of Representative for nearly two hours in a briefing session. I’ll go up and meet the Senate tomorrow, and because the President has directed me to testify once we work out the committees of jurisdiction, I will be up testifying before Congress in the next week or two.

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to do this. I hope I can do it again.

MSNBC-Will Femia: We certainly have enough questions on the list for that.

Gov. Tom Ridge: I’m confident that America understands that this is an enduring vulnerability, that the 21st century threat is unlike anything we’ve ever dealt with before. This is a different kind of enemy. This enemy deploys a different strategy with different tactics and it’s a different organization.

We value life, they value death. It gives them a strategic advantage. But as the President is fond of saying, had they considered our resolve, and our commitment, our compassion and our unity, they might have thought twice about confronting us because at the end of the day, as we develop and then deploy a national effort to secure America, and I reiterate again national, not just federal, the President strongly believes that we can end up being not only a safer and more secure country but a better country as well.

One of the best examples of that is the President’s initiative in 2003 budget submission where he dramatically increases spending by several billion dollars to public health. The President believes that we need to build up the public health system because of some of the gaps we saw as we tried to respond to the series of anthrax challenge along the east coast. It’s an investment that we need to make to fight bioterrorism. It’s also a good investment in the long term health of the country. Because whether infections disease strikes us from the microbes placed in an envelope by a terrorist or they are naturally occurring and brought to us by Mother Nature, we’re better equipped to deal with them if he have a better public health system.

I say that to underscore simply the notion that the President strongly believes that as America has done in the past we will rise to this challenge. It’s going to take us a long time to eradicate international terrorism, we have a strong coalition of partners who are helping us do that. And as we respond to the new threat, and we have and continue to do so, we still have a lot more work to do, it will be not only be a safer and more secure country, it will be a healthier and better country as well. I thank you for the opportunity of sharing these few thoughts with you this evening.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Governor Ridge, I appreciate you taking this time out with us. Hopefully we can have you back again, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this question list. Perhaps you can come back when you’re secretary of homeland defense?

Gov. Tom Ridge: Whether that occurs, maybe I ought to come back some time as this legislation moves down the path and it’s more sharply defined —and I hope there aren’t too many differences but as we get a little farther down the road I’d love to continue the conversation with the folks in the chat room.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Well, we'll stay in touch!

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