Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, whose name became synonymous with color-coded terror alerts and tutorials about how to prepare for possible attack, resigned today, saying he was confident the United States is significantly safer than before the 2001 terrorist strikes.
Ridge, who has warned that the country may face increased terror risks around the holidays and the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, said he will remain on the job through Feb. 1. He submitted his resignation to President Bush on Tuesday morning after attending a daily threat briefing with CIA and FBI officials.
As the nation’s first chief of the new Department of Homeland Security, Ridge presided over a collection of 22 disparate federal agencies and 180,000 employees. He acknowledged he could not prove the enormously expensive and complex security measures put in place since 2001 have foiled any terrorist attacks inside the United States but said he was certain America was safer.
“I am confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit we’ve got additional security measures that didn’t exist a couple years ago, that from port to port we do things differently with maritime security,” Ridge said. “I am confident they know the borders are more secure. I am confident they know we have developed and are sharing information with state and local law enforcement.”
Ridge said terrorists know that because of the changes, “America is a different place to work and operate in.”
Among those mentioned as possible candidates for Ridge’s replacement are Bernard Kerik, interim Minister of the Interior for Iraq and former New York City police commissioner, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt and White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend. Others are also believed to be interested in the job, including Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Homeland Security Department.
At a news conference, Ridge defended the department’s efforts to warn the public of possible terror threats, saying it preferred to disclose more information than some officials believed was wise.
“That’s something we take pride in,” Ridge said. “America is prepared to deal with the reality of the post-9/11 world. It’s in our best long-term interest to share more information about the threat to America rather than less.”
Ridge, who is married with two children, said that for the future he intends to “raise some family and personal matters to a higher priority,” including attending his son’s rugby games.
In an e-mail circulated to Homeland Security officials, Ridge praised the department as “an extraordinary organization that each day contributes to keeping America safe and free.”
Six other Bush Cabinet figures are leaving, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman; Secretary of State Colin Powell and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Bush has chosen national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for the State Department, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales for the Justice Department, Carlos Gutierrez for Commerce and Margaret Spellings for Education.
In October 2001, Ridge became the nation’s first White House homeland security adviser, leading a massive undertaking to rethink all aspects of security within the U.S. borders in the wake of the terror attacks of September 2001.
Congress subsequently passed legislation establishing the Homeland Security Department. Ridge became the department’s first secretary in January 2003.
He has presided over six national “orange alerts” when the government boosted security out of concern that an attack may be coming. An attack in the United States never happened on his watch.
Ridge has said, however, that he believes an assault by the al-Qaida terrorist network was averted last summer during the Fourth of July holiday period, when intelligence reports indicated terrorists might be targeting international flights to attack the United States. Passenger manifests were scrutinized and flights were canceled.
Yet Ridge, a politician by nature, fought criticism leading up to the election from those who said he was using terror warnings to boost support for Bush. Ridge repeatedly said: “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.”
Ridge, 59, has privately expressed his interest in moving out of the time-consuming, stressful post. However, those who know him said his loyalty to Bush was always a factor to consider.
Ridge, who has spent most of his adult life in public service, came home from Vietnam, earned a law degree and went into private practice in Pennsylvania. He later served as an assistant district attorney and ran for Congress in 1982.
Ridge was re-elected five times. He became the Pennsylvania governor in 1995, leaving the state capital in October 2001 after the White House called.