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Ridge: New department ready for new threats

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge talked with CNN's Larry King on Thursday, shortly after President Bush proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

LARRY KING: The obvious first question, Tom, is: If offered this post of the permanent director, so to speak, of a Cabinet rank, would you take it?

TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: Larry, I've got a job right now as an adviser to the president, and one job at a time, Larry. Maybe we'll have an opportunity to deal with this later. But I still have a job on a day-to-day basis to do what the president asked me to do on October 8. And until we get the new structure up, until we get the new Department of Homeland Security, I have one job to focus on, and that's where the energy and commitment needs to be.

KING: On this program some months ago, when you were asked about the idea of a Cabinet post, you said there would have to be realignment of government agencies and departments and you didn't think the job should be elevated to Cabinet secretary level. What changed?

RIDGE: Well, I'd like to revisit that with you, because I've tried to keep the option open, because the president from day one said, we consider as part of our task to consider the structure of government as it presently exists and determine whether or not it is adequate enough to meet a new threat, and that's the threat of terrorism.

Maybe I wasn't as artful as I could have been that night to say to you that I think, if there is a reorganization -- and clearly the president's vision is that we need one -- and I believe that he'll find great support and leadership on the Hill from Republicans and Democrats.

The president would still need an adviser, and I think he'd like to preserve that option for himself and future presidents to have an adviser in the White House; but also to reorganize the federal agency so that one mission, the primary mission of the president, that is to protect America and our way of life, can be established within the Department of Homeland Security.

KING: How about the nature of the human being? Are you asking -- you're going to ask bureaucracies to give up what they do? That ain't easy.

RIDGE: Well, Larry, I think these men and women that work at INS and Customs and the Coast Guard and FEMA, first of all, I think we have to understand they're patriots and they're public servants. And when they go to work on a day-to-day basis, many of them have focused on homeland security issues for years, if not decades.

But they've focused on that mission, on that task in agencies that were not designed around the primary mission of protecting America and providing safety to citizens and preservation of our way of life. Now they can take that mission and their professionalism and their patriotism to an agency whose primary concern, primary focus is to protect the homeland. And I think they'll respond very favorably to it.

KING: The president said tonight that we're winning the war against terrorism. Isn't this forming of this agency in conflict with that statement? If we're winning, why do we need it?

RIDGE: You know, it's an interesting question, Larry, because some people asked after we won World War II -- why did Harry Truman, after we won a war, reorganize the defense establishment? And the reason Harry Truman reorganized the defense establishment, in spite of winning, is because he saw a new threat.

The parallel to what the president said -- announced tonight -- I think is very similar. I think to date, we are winning the war in Afghanistan. We've got allies that are helping us on the ground, and our troops are located around the world. We've interdicted, and our allies have helped us arrest people. We've done a great deal to disrupt their activity and influence the flow of money.

But we still need to reorganize government because the new threat of international terrorism is an enduring threat. It's a permanent vulnerability, and the president appropriately has asked the Congress to work with him to permanently reorganize to deal with the new, 21st-century threat.

KING: So much in the news lately about the conflict between the CIA and the FBI. Under this, the president's concept, the head of this agency, whether it's you or whomever, will have what say over those two bureaus and agencies?

RIDGE: Well, Larry, I feel, when I pick up the paper or listen to someone comment that there's conflict between the CIA and the FBI, I mean, it just -- it's not the reality that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I mean, we meet. And we meet with the CIA Director George Tenet, and I meet with the FBI Director Bob Mueller. And they have got a very close relationship. It has gotten better and stronger every day that I've had the opportunity to work with them since October 8. As a matter of fact, Director Mueller has a new organizational path. He wants to do a better job in pulling in information and analyzing it.

So at the end of the day, with the new Department of Homeland Security, the president wants the CIA and the FBI to do their job. But this new department will become a consumer, become a customer. We'll want the information that they pull in, but we'll want this new department to pull in information from the INS, from Customs, from the Coast Guard, from the drug enforcement authorities, from the state and local police.

We'll want them to pull in all that information and sort it out between rumor and suspicion and fact and speculation and misinformation, and do an assessment, do an analysis, and then communicate it -- if it's a real threat, communicate that to state and local governments.

KING: So he or she in the agency will be chartered to -- when it asks, it gets?

RIDGE: Well, I think that's exactly right. And more importantly, if we see, based on -- if the agency sees, based on its analysis of the overall threat information that they want the FBI to go back and pursue another investigation or pursue another path, they won't have the capability to do that, they would use the resources that the FBI and the intelligence community and law enforcement community generally would bring to the table.

So we'll be consumers and we'll be customers. But this new department or agency will be working as closely with the CIA and the FBI as our office has been working since October 8.

KING: We are going to have a prominent member of the Senate and a prominent member of the House following you in a couple of minutes. Have you consulted the leadership prior to this announcement?

RIDGE: It's a wonderful question, because during the past several months I've been up on the Hill, and I know Senator Feinstein is one of your guests, and she and I have talked about border reorganization. And we've talked about just the whole notion that in order to deal with the threat, whether it's at the border, whether it's information analysis and sharing, that we probably needed to do something differently in the 21st century because it's the new threat, the dominant threat of the 21st century. We've talked to -- been up and briefed and spent time with Congressman Chris Shays and the Republicans and Democrats on his committee as well.

So we've had quite a few very good and very positive conversations with both Republicans and Democrats. At the end of the day, times of crisis, we need leadership at the presidential level, we need leadership at the congressional level. And I think your two guests tonight will provide some of that bipartisan leadership we need in both chambers.

KING: We'll find out in a couple of minutes. Do you expect easy sledding on the Hill?

RIDGE: Larry, you know I was privileged to serve up there for 12 years, and there are 88 committees and subcommittees that technically have a piece of the homeland security puzzle, and not the president or anybody in the executive branch is not inclined to give any guidance or instruction to the House or the Senate as to how to deal with it.

But they're patriots, all. They want to help. And I believe that they'll work their way through that maze of committees and subcommittees and end up providing the kind of leadership we need at the congressional level in order to get the job done.

KING: Leaders like Rumsfeld and Cheney and others have said, not will there be another attack on this country, but when, and in what form it's going to happen. Do you share that view? Is something going to happen?

RIDGE: Larry, I would say to you that in a world where we know that there are literally thousands and thousands of al Qaeda terrorists -- and there are other terrorists and other organizations in a world that's as complex as it is and as challenging as it is, and in a country that is as large and as diverse and as open as ours -- I think we should anticipate the fact that we will be a target.

We know we are the No. 1 target, and I think we better plan for that eventuality. It is that whole notion, the fact that for the time being, for the foreseeable future, the new threat isn't from necessarily traditional enemies. We're making a tremendous relationship change with the Soviet Union. But the dominant new threat is international terrorism. It's the 21st-century threat.

And that's why, with the president's leadership and congressional leadership, I think we can reorganize much of the government to deal with the new threat.

KING: And one other thing: Is this going to need a building somewhere, or two, in place by January 1?

RIDGE: Larry, as you know, this new agency will have nearly 175,000 people. But most of these men and women are outside of Washington and doing their job and doing it well every single day.

So right now the logistics of a new building are not as important as consolidating command and control, giving specific direction to the Department of Homeland Security and to these agencies to make sure that we fulfill the president's commitment to keep America as safe as possible.

We can never guarantee that there will be no surprises, but we can say to the citizens we are obliged, and seek to help and protect and defend, that we'll do everything we can to make sure that we've done the best job we can to make sure the federal government, the state government, local government and everybody's engaged in providing greater security and safety.

KING: And quickly, January 1 reasonable?

RIDGE: I think it is. I've had so many conversations, again, with congressional representatives and senators who want to be helpful, who believe in different parts of the broad reorganization plan that the president is offering tonight, and I'm confident we're going to see great leadership, bipartisan leadership on the Hill to work with the president to get this done for America.




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