- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

As expected, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge resigned Tuesday, leaving a legacy his future successors might consider unfair. Since Mr. Ridge assumed his role, first as White House homeland security adviser immediately following September 11, then later as secretary, there have been no further terrorist attacks on the United States homeland. It’s easy to forget how assured everyone was back then that another terrorist attack was all but inevitable. It hasn’t happened, and to deny Mr. Ridge any of the credit would be an egregious miscalculation of his tenure.

Yet how has the media decided to remember Secretary Ridge? The lead sentence in The Washington Post’s story on Mr. Ridge’s resignation yesterday said he “became linked in the public mind with color-coded warnings of possible terrorist attacks,” without adding that no terrorist attacks occurred. The New York Times graciously left the bad joke to its second paragraph: ” … best known to the public as the official who announced changes in the color-coded terrorism alert system.” The NYT devoted an entire story to it on A22, “Under Ridge, Color Alerts and Mixed Security Reviews.” If elite reporters and editors were tickled by Mr. Ridge’s awkward terror alert changes, perhaps they should ask themselves how they would have reacted to a terrorist attack that was presaged with no warnings.

While not perfect, Mr. Ridge’s tenure is nonetheless praiseworthy. Since the Defense Department was created in 1947, the former Pennsylvania governor oversaw the largest reorganization of the federal government, which combined 22 pre-existing agencies into one. Forced to wrestle with entrenched bureaucracies long accustomed to their independence, Mr. Ridge performed with shrewdness and diligence. It was a thankless process that yielded few tangible results and much bellyaching from government agencies and private companies. Still, terrorists have so far failed to penetrate the defenses Mr. Ridge substantially helped construct.

Undeniably, there is much work left for his successor. The nation’s ports are still mostly unprotected, as are its chemical and nuclear facilities — all appetizing targets for terrorists. But Congress, it should be noted, would have to be willing to increase such funding by a factor of 10 — a potentially infeasible level, requiring nothing less than a sea change in congressional attitudes. And the borders remain anything but secure. As Jerry Seper and Guy Taylor of The Washington Times reported Monday, mismanagement and morale problems at the newly formed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have grown under Mr. Ridge’s otherwise steady governance. The new secretary must confront these issues.

After September 11, Mr. Ridge was asked to make sense of the mess handed to him as the homeland security adviser to the White House. It was an enormous task few were optimistic about. Three years later, we better understand where we need to go, because of Mr. Ridge. He deserves the gratitude of a threatened nation.

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