August 30, 2009

“Real security,” former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge writes in the preface to his memoir “The Test for Our Times,” “is never a black and white issue, while in politics, those sorts of phenomena tend to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, the subject of demagoguery and worse. Black or white. Right or wrong. You or me.”

Mr. Ridge’s nuanced view is for the most part anathema in today’s Washington, where Taliban-like radicals have captured leadership roles of both parties. From the left and from the right, these screeching ideologues issue precisely the sorts of polarizing political fatwas Mr. Ridge, one of a seemingly dying breed of moderate Republicans, abhors.

So it is a shame that the initial reaction to Mr. Ridge’s thoughtful and often incisive memoir, which deals more substantively than most of the genre with the thorny issues surrounding the problem of keeping our homeland secure, have been reduced to the cable-news, WWF screamfest issue of whether Mr. Ridge was pressured to change the national threat level just prior to the 2004 election.

Mr. Ridge is a decent man — a Vietnam veteran who wears the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and received the Bronze Star and who served as an enlisted man, not an officer. Later, he brought to public service — as a congressman, as governor of Pennsylvania and then as the man tapped by President George W. Bush to head the White House office of homeland security and subsequently as first Secretary of Homeland Security — a staff sergeant’s common-sense leadership and operational values.

As Mr. Ridge puts it, “You don’t run to the commanding general because someone in the chain of command is ‘busting your chops.’ You deal with it and move on.”

Move on is what he did in 2004 during The Incident that has all those talking heads bloviating. Mr. Ridge’s narrative is both understated and clear. In essence, he writes, there were those — the vice president and the attorney general among them — who believed that the threat level should be raised. And there were those — most significantly DHS-Secretary Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller — who did not believe it was necessary to do so.

“Absent a consensus,” writes Mr. Ridge, “there could be no recommendation for [assistant to the president for homeland security Fran] Townsend to present to the president.” Mr. Ridge’s bottom line: “I believe our strong interventions had pulled the ‘go up’ advocates back from the brink. But I consider the episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington’s recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, feat, credibility, and security.”

The threat level anecdote, and another in which Mr. Ridge shoulders the blame for allowing the White House to insert three sentences of politically charged rhetoric into one of his speeches, have made headlines. What have not are the instances cited by Mr. Ridge when congressional showboating, second-guessing and needless hearings got in the way of progress; or Mr. Ridge’s spot-on condemnation about intelligence stovepiping by agencies more interested in turf management than multilayered security.

Like most governors, Mr. Ridge knew almost nothing about terrorism prior to being tapped for his White House position. Unlike the current chairman of the House Intelligence committee, who couldn’t tell an interviewer the difference between Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, or the top FBI counterterrorist who didn’t think it was necessary for him to know the difference between Islamic sects, former Staff Sgt. Ridge crammed on Islam the way law school grads cram for the bar exam.

As he puts it, “I had [only] a few days to become an expert on nearly fourteen hundred years of Islamic history, to learn how the split came between the Shia and Sunnis, to discover why Osama Bin Laden pointed to events a thousand years ago that made him determined, in the twenty-first century, so seek vengeance and, in his view, justice.” This is what is known as leadership from the front.

Setting up the Department of Homeland Security was — and remains — a monumental challenge. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said (and Mr. Ridge quotes twice in his book), “It’s like asking Noah to build the ark after the rain has started to fall.” DHS comprises “nearly 180,000 federal employees, drawn from parts or all of twenty-two units of government, including the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, elements of the of the Department of Justice, INS, security guards at airports, and Customs.” Today, DHS is still a huge, unwieldy amalgamation of agencies with disparate histories, cultures and missions.

Mr. Ridge also learns — and explains in the book — one of the most basic tenets of protection: that it is easier to act than it is to react. Thus, as DHS secretary, he becomes a strong proponent of inspecting shipping containers before they reach U.S. ports. “Making our borders the last line of defense, not the first, was always our goal.”

He also understands that security is not static, but made up of ever-changing concentric circles that must shift according to the threat. He realizes that ‘security’ results from an all-encompassing national policy including such thorny issues as immigration policy, privacy, intelligence integration and meshing the competing cultures of long-established government bureaucracies. It is a security Utopia that does not exist.

And early on — before he began work at the White House — Mr. Ridge grasped one of the most basic but generally ignored rules for of success in the world of counterterrorism. To succeed, you must think like the bad guys.

As he prepared his farewell address to the Pennsylvania legislature in the fall of 2001, Gov. Ridge “wrote four words in large print on a note card and put it on the podium.” They were a reminder to keep everything he said, everything he did, in focus.

Those four words, which succinctly define what the bad guys are doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, were absolutely true when Mr. Ridge wrote them, and they remain true today. Indeed, they should serve as guidance to the current administration, whose national security policies appear confused, conflicting and muddled.

What Mr. Ridge wrote was: “The bastards are watching.”

• John Weisman spent 15 years as Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent for Triangle Publications. He can be reached at