The governor’s aides urged him to turn down the lose-lose proposition and stay in Harrisburg to finish his eighth and final year in office. About one minute into the aides’ carefully prepared pitch, Tom Ridge put up a hand to silence them. He had already made up his mind.
In the chaotic days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Ridge departed Pennsylvania for a job unlike any other: To keep the country safe by launching the largest reorganization of the federal government in 50 years.
Mr. Ridge, first as a White House adviser and then as the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, managed to build a Washington bureaucracy that experts say has largely succeeded in its original mission 20 years ago.
The department, combining 22 different agencies under one Cabinet secretary, filled gaps and blind spots that had left the country vulnerable to attack in the years before the 9/11 attacks. Nothing like those attacks has occurred again on U.S. soil.
But today, as the department faces emerging 21st-century threats ranging from malicious computer codes to a dearth of public trust, some experts wonder whether it needs another Ridge-sized revamping.
The challenges are vast and evolving: A surge of migrants at the southern border with Mexico; cyberattacks like the one that shut down gasoline supplies in May; domestic terrorism incidents like the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; extreme weather events and natural disasters that can hit any corner of the country.
And the stunning fall of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government to the Taliban last month has renewed old questions about U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities and protecting Americans from Islamic extremism.
The department also contends with low morale among its sprawling workforce and rising political polarization that some fear can hamper the agency’s nonpartisan work.
In interviews, experts said the department — a loose confederation of national security, border protection, intelligence and emergency response agencies employing 250,000 people — can struggle to articulate unified policies across so many issues.
“There are a lot of disparate missions,” said Daniel M. Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp., who served as a deputy under secretary at DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate during the Obama administration.
“I can’t get a sense of coherent policies, necessarily,” Mr. Gerstein said. “I haven’t seen them close any big loops.”
A ‘seemingly impossible task’
Mr. Ridge was immersed in the pleasant toil of garden work at his home in Erie when news of the 9/11 attacks reached him. He was rushed by the Pennsylvania National Guard in a Chinook helicopter — a model he often flew in combat during the Vietnam War — to the state’s emergency response headquarters near Harrisburg.
The hours that followed were a blur punctuated by poignant details, according to Mr. Ridge’s writings, statements and to people who were with him that day. (Mr. Ridge is rehabilitating following a stroke and was unavailable for an interview for this story.)
There was the first aerial sight of the smoldering plane-shaped hole near Shanksville in Stonycreek Township under a cloudless blue sky. There were the emergency responders who raced to the scene and to other vulnerable sites across the state.
There were the hordes of reporters and cameras surrounding Mr. Ridge, wearing a powder-blue dress shirt and jeans, as he tried to explain what parents should tell their children: “The range of emotion goes from rage and anger to sorrow to horror,” he said.
And then there was, about a week later, the call he received from the White House to draw up a national strategy as a new homeland security adviser.
Mr. Ridge’s press secretary, Tim Reeves, huddled with Mark Campbell, then Mr. Ridge’s chief of staff, and quickly drew up a recommendation for the governor to decline the offer.
“He was going into a job that had no precedent in an unprecedented time,” Mr. Reeves said in a recent interview. “This was going to be a job with zero good news. The whole environment then was that we were expecting more attacks. We had to think that way.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Ridge, a Republican who was close with President George W. Bush, was hugely popular in a Democratic-majority state. He had claimed a resounding re-election victory in 1998, garnering 1.7 million votes, 57% of the total, more votes than any Republican gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history.
Mr. Ridge was skeptical of the job offer, too. The White House offered scant details, promising a staff of 15 or 20 people and an expansive mission. The offer was an “enormous and seemingly impossible task,” Mr. Ridge recalled in his 2010 memoir, “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege … And How We Can Be Safe Again.”
But Mr. Ridge viewed it as a request from the commander in chief he could not refuse. He silenced his aides.
“It was his second draft notice,” said Mark Holman, who was Mr. Ridge’s chief of staff before Mr. Campbell and became deputy assistant to the president in the newly formed White House Office of Homeland Security.
“It was the old staff sergeant coming out,” Mr. Reeves said.
The very next night, nine days after 9/11, Mr. Ridge sat in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber as Mr. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress.
Homeland security efforts “must be coordinated at the highest level,” Mr. Bush told the country, and he had selected a “distinguished American” to lead the effort: “a military veteran, an effective governor, a true patriot, a trusted friend — Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge.”
Government on a whiteboard
Mr. Ridge and his team got to work in October, operating amid a national culture of anxiety. They were immediately confronted by the investigation into the source of deadly anthrax mailed to lawmakers and news outlets.
They started out with a staff of eight people in a tiny White House office and eventually grew to more than four dozen aides who were temporarily reassigned from various agencies.
“It was a very eclectic mix of folks,” Mr. Holman said. “Some just showed up at our doorstep, literally, at the White House and said, ‘Can we join this project?’”
But by December, it became apparent that despite good intentions, the staff was still limiting their ideas to their own silos. “We were going around in circles,” Mr. Holman said.
So Mr. Bush empowered about a dozen people to “whiteboard the entire government with no boundaries,” Mr. Holman said. “They were able to spend pretty much three weeks alone with unfettered brainstorming about what this could look like.”
In January 2002, a draft plan was submitted, and by the end of the year, Congress used the team’s blueprint to pass legislation establishing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. Ridge’s early efforts were met with some public skepticism and jokes from late-night comedians who mocked the department’s five-color terror attack threat level system. Some of his advice, like keeping a roll of duct tape and plastic sheeting handy in case of attack, was ridiculed as too vague or confusing to the general public.
“A sense of humor and the need for a thick skin came with the territory,” Mr. Ridge wrote in his memoir.
Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Ridge was closing crucial gaps.
Mark Schweiker, who stepped into the role of Pennsylvania’s governor in October 2001, said national preparedness efforts before 9/11 were “really scattered and unfocused.”
“We needed to be a lot faster in conducting threat assessments,” Mr. Schweiker said, in particular with protecting Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants and ports from attack.
“If there was some intel that one of the nuclear plants was mentioned, we don’t have days, we have minutes to respond, and minutes to access knowledgeable federal personnel and ask, ‘How real is this?’” Mr. Schweiker said. “We did reach that kind of capacity very quickly.”
“The governors across the country were completely in his corner on this,” he added. “I was able to just whisper to him that it makes complete sense, our ability to track these terrorist cells is enhanced when we’re provided such inside information so quickly.”
Searching for a ‘Pentagon’
Mr. Ridge stepped down as secretary in November 2004, later revealing in his memoir that senior Bush administration officials had tried to raise the nation’s terror alert level in the days before the 2004 presidential vote.
Less than a year later, the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina battered the reputation of the department’s response to weather events. The department’s effectiveness over the years was challenged in part by its structure, said Julia Santucci, a professor of intelligence studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a former CIA official.
“It does have very different mandates — certainly the people who are responsible for addressing terrorist threats like al-Qaeda are going to have a different role than FEMA or the Coast Guard,” Ms. Santucci said.
While that was by design, “It poses a real leadership challenge for the secretary,” she said.
In 2019, the department moved from its Nebraska Avenue headquarters in northwest Washington — facilities that Mr. Ridge showed off to Mr. Bush during a 2002 tour — to the campus of a psychiatric hospital in southeast D.C., a 35-minute drive south across the Anacostia River.
“There’s no Pentagon for the DHS leaders,” Mr. Holman said. “For Secretary Ridge and his successors, that’s been an extra bureaucratic and management challenge they’ve uniquely faced within the government.”
The physical separation and rising political polarization around the department’s immigration policies took a toll, experts said, on its workforce.
In March 2020, DHS’ public approval stood at 60% among Democrats and 86% of Republicans, according to Pew Research Center. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of DHS, was supported by 28% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans. (The U.S. Postal Service, the most popular agency, got 91% support.)
Employee morale has fallen below government-wide averages for years, as tracked by the Government Accountability Office. In January, the GAO said the department was still working to improve employee engagement.
DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Gerstein, the former DHS official, said he watched the revolving door of Homeland Security secretaries and nominees under the Trump administration with concern.
Governors, with their experience running a state and knowledge of emergency response efforts, seemed to be uniquely qualified to be secretary. Mr. Ridge, and Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor who served in the Obama administration, were great examples, Mr. Gerstein said.
“I have argued that the department could be strengthened at the core,” Mr. Gerstein said. “It’s more like a confederation rather than a single organization with common missions.”
“I think they will survive,” he said.
A persistent risk
People kept nagging Mr. Ridge about whether he was going to write a book. He eventually put pen to paper, in part, as he explained in the book’s introduction, to alert the country to the modern security challenge.
“I continue to worry about growing public complacency,” Mr. Ridge wrote in his 2010 memoir. “I have a certain wariness that as we move farther in time from the mindset of 9/11 we will have lost our edge, and not be prepared psychologically or physically should disaster happen.”
In a 2016 conference call with reporters around Sept. 11, Mr. Ridge said the country was passing its security tests. But he called terrorism “a risk we can manage, but it’s a risk we’ll never be able to eliminate.”
The return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan after the chaotic pullout of U.S. troops last month adds to the challenge.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a recent interview the U.S. is “not going to have some of the same foundation” to gather intelligence in Afghanistan.
“There’s no question it’s going to have an impact on how we gather intelligence, but we do have to recognize the threat has moved elsewhere,” Mr. Casey said.
Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “We do not assess that any terrorist group on the ground has the ability to attack the homeland in the United States.”
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