Rachel Maddow's Devastating Showdown with Tom Ridge: Comeuppance for Failures on Katrina, Terror Threats and Iraq
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[T]he man at the center of this biggest transformation of the federal government in modern history, the biggest change in what we pay federal tax dollars for since we got a unified Defense Department in 1947, is our next guest. His name is Tom Ridge.
He has a new book out called, The Test of Our Times . It's a very human book. It reads as sort of one man's adventures in nationally consequential politics. The buzz about the book, thus far, has focused on one passage that's buried way down to start on Page 236.
Just before the '04 election, another Osama bin Laden video was released. Secretary Ridge says he didn't believe that a threatening tape alone was ever justification for raising America's formal threat level. It's just not that simple.
But at the end of October -- October 29th -- just before the election, he says, quote, "A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld."
Ridge says, quote, "There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I and wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?' Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level."
Now, although this hasn't been as widely quoted as that passage you just heard, Secretary Ridge then continues, and I think this is important, he says, quote, "As the minutes passed at our video conference, we concluded that others in the administration were operating with the same threat information that we had at DHS, and they didn't know any more than we did. And we concluded that the idea was still a bad one. It also seemed possible to me and to others around the table that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country's safety."
Joining us now is former Pennsylvania governor, former homeland security secretary, a Vietnam veteran awarded the Bronze Star for valor as an infantry staff sergeant, Mr. Tom Ridge, who's also the author of "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege and How We Can Be Safe Again."
Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in. Congratulations on the book.
Ridge: Well, Rachel, thank you very much for the invitation. And I had a hunch that you might begin our conversation with that passage.
Maddow: Well, that's where all of the hullabaloo is.
Ridge: Well, it is.
Maddow: I want to give you a chance to talk about it, because I think it's important to know that the politicization of security is not just this passage. It's an ongoing theme in the book. You have got two chapters that are titled that way.
Maddow: And you argue that the perception that decisions on national safety would be made not for actual national safety reasons but for political reasons, you argue that that perception is pernicious, it impedes what we need to do to keep the country safe. Why do you think it's so dangerous?
Ridge: Well, that's not quite the argument that I put in here.
Ridge: Earlier in the book before this passage is referred to -- first of all, I thank you for raising it. It's a very important question. I wrote the book to shed some light on the challenges we faced setting up the department, the successes, the missteps and the way ahead. That passage has generated a lot of heat, so I would like to generate a little light on it.
Ridge: Further in the book, I remind everybody that the system we designed to raise the threat level could not be manipulated, could not be orchestrated, directed or pressured by any single individual. Regardless of what anybody says, the system was designed by the president to include the homeland security cabinet group sitting around from time to time when the intelligence warranted that group discussion. If you had a YouTube video of it, you would see the secretary of defense, the attorney general, the secretary of state and others, having a conversation as to whether the intelligence generates enough concern that we want to raise the threat level.
That happened many, many times. This is a particularly dramatic moment, because it is the weekend before the election.
Ridge: We don't see anything in the department that generates it, and certainly other people agreed with us. But Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft, very strong in their opinions, as everybody had expressed opinions on any other occasions that you never heard about because we never -- we never raised the threat level.
At the end of the day, I am using in the book, is there more intelligence, is there something -- that is new. That is not speculation about politics. Because at no time -- at no time -- at no time did politics enter in my judgment, anybody's equation.
These are tough judgment calls. We made them on a series of occasions throughout two years. Rarely did we make those decisions to go up. Politics was not involved.
The system was designed that people made judgments. The homeland security assistant to the president would make a recommendation. Those are the only ways we could go up. And as I say in the book, even the president couldn't raise it.
Maddow: So to be clear, though, and I want to be clear on both. That's a very clear, cogent explanation. That makes sense internally. But I want to square it with the book. Are you saying that you were not pressured to raise the security alert on the eve of the '04 elections?
Ridge: I'm saying that I was not pressured. I'm saying in the book, since I am the secretary, and if we do decide to raise the threat level, the consequences to oversee the enhanced security right before the election belong to my -- my departments. And I say at the end of this discussion, a vigorous discussion where people were rendering judgments in my mind based on what they think is in the best interests for the safety and the security of the country, I am using in the book, is there something else here? What am I missing? I don't get it. Is it politics? Is it security? What's driving this discussion?
But at the end of the day, what I say to you, Rachel, is the process worked. Politics wasn't involved.
Maddow: I mean, the reason that this keeps coming up is, I mean, I'm just going to read to you directly from the fly leaf of your book.
Ridge: Oh, I know that. Read my words.
Maddow: He recounts episodes such as the pressure that the DHS received to raise the security alert on the eve of the '04 presidential election. That's wrong.
Ridge: Those aren't my words.
Ridge: Read the book. Read pageâ€¦
Maddow: Well, I mean, this is -- this does come with the book. It's the dust jacket.
Ridge: That's right. It is the dust jacket. But my words in the book say very specifically, and even some of my friends who -- I mean, people are -- I understand the concern about the passage, and I understand the concern about my response and my musing, but I'm here to tell you, as I said earlier in the book, the system was designed so that people made critical judgments about the information in front of them, and throughout the entire time that I was secretary, I believe the system worked.
We went up three or four times. You will never know the other times we had the same conversation when people said we ought to go up. We didn't go up. But unless there was a consensus based on security, actionable intelligence, we never went up.
Maddow: Well, the reason that this matters so much to people, it's not just a -- it's not a gotcha thing. I think that I am persuaded by the argument that I think you make in the book, and you may not have intended it from what you said earlier, that it is a pernicious thing for the American people to perceive that the parts of our government responsible for ensuring our security are actually making decisions that aren't about our security at all. They're telling us it's about security and it's not.
So when you came out in 2005 and you said at a forum about the terror alert level, you said there were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, "for that?"
Maddow: Were there times -- were there times when you felt like people were wanting to raise it for reasons that weren't about the country's safety?
Ridge: No, no. I'm trying to express a human reaction that I had leading a new department with this massive responsibility, creating relationships with other agencies. And, you know, I didn't go in as a counterterrorism expert, but I had a great intelligence group, and I learned a lot about terrorism along the way.
And I do admit, there were some times when we took a look at the intelligence. Some of my colleagues said, yes, I think we better go up. But none of those colleagues had the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of taking the country to a higher level. And so we were always very modest.
Maddow: But do youâ€¦
Ridge: We had a higher threshold to go up, I think, than anybody else.
Maddow: But are you saying that people were saying it should go up?
Ridge: No. They were saying -- I don't doubtâ€¦
Maddow: For political reasons?
Ridge: I don't doubt for a moment that any of my colleagues who were involved in those discussions felt the reason we should either go up or not go up, add more security or reduce the security, was based on what they thought was in the best interest of the security of the country, period.
But I had a natural reaction. It's in the book. When I said, "for what?" I must tell you, a couple of times I would come back to the office and say, "I don't get it."
Ridge: I don't think that's enough to go up. And part of that is yours truly saying to his leadership team who has responsibilities to oversee what's going to go on, there's not enough here to tell the governors and the mayors and the security professionals, you have got to raise another level, you have got to increase expenses, you have got to call in personnel. In my judgment, it wasn't enough. And by the way, at the time we made the right decision, I believe.
Maddow: When you wrote, not on the fly leaf but in your book, when you wrote, "it seemed possible to me that something could be afoot. I wondered, is this about security or politics?"
Ridge: That's right.
Maddow: You're saying now that you wondered that and you shouldn't have?
Ridge: No. I mused at the time, is there something else here? I said, is it politics? Is it security?
Maddow: But there wasn't anything there.
Ridge: But there wasn't anything there.
Maddow: It seemed possible to you that something could be afoot? At the time.
Ridge: Well, after that, you know, after that, I learned that actually some people recalled there might have been a political discussion (ph). I don't recall it. All I remember is, after this meeting, I'm scratching my head saying that people were arguing very vigorously about that. We went back out and said, is there intelligence out there that we're not aware of? Is there something else here afoot? End of story. We did not raise the threat level. That was the right decision.
Maddow: When you were worried about it, though, at the time, and you're describing now and you're being very specific, and I think it's really helpful, in terms of what you were worried about, versus what you believe now was really going on. You were worried at the time maybe there were some politics involved. You say now that you can tell that there weren't politics involved.
But if you were worried at the time that there were politics involved, that the threat level was -- there was pressure on the threat level, pressure on decisions about national security that were about politics and not about the safety of the country, why didn't you warn us? Why didn't you say something publicly?
Ridge: Because there was no reason to warn you. Listen, it was dramatic because it's the eve of the election, Rachel -- I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. There was a lot of speculation. Go back and look at the Internet. People were saying, I wonder if they are going to cancel the election, are they going to postpone the election? Remember, this is the same year that six or seven months prior to, there had been an incident before the Spanish election that probably turned the election. So the fact that politics was on my mind when I'm musing to myself, is there something else going on here, did not seem irrational at the time to even write in the book. There were a lot of things at play, but second-guessing the reasons my colleagues went up was not one of them.
Maddow: Right after you described those feelings, though, you say, I made a decision, I knew then that I had to leave the administration. Were those concerns that you had at the time, whether or not they were founded, part of the reason that you left?
Ridge: Rachel, that may not have been as artful, because when I -- that is, it should have been, it was a natural time for transition, and frankly, when the president asked me to stay on to go from assistant to the secretary of the homeland security, it was fairly well known that I would probably leave at the end of the first term.
Maddow: OK. That was not part of the -- did not factor into the decision?
Ridge: It was not.
Maddow: OK. If you wouldn't mind, would you mind sticking with us through? We have to take a commercial break. And there are a number of other things, specifically about decisions you made at DHS, momentous decisions that were still -- have still really shaped our homeland security capability today that I would love to ask you about if I haven't offended you too much already?
Ridge: No, it's been a wonderful discussion. I appreciate you letting me shed some light.
Maddow: And you will stick with us just for a second?
Ridge: You bet.
Maddow: I'd like to ask you, because today is an anniversary of sorts. I would like to ask you to watch about 60 seconds of footage that is from four years ago, from -- from September 1st, 2005, obviously, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, OK? All right.
Unidentified Female: (inaudible) not very easy! (inaudible) this is not about low income. It's not about rich people or poor people. It's about people.
Unidentified Male: We're suffering here with no water. See, I fought my country for years. Look at the predicament I'm in. I can't even go back to my own house in New Orleans east. I don't have nowhere to go.
Unidentified Female: Worse than animals. I mean, in Baghdad, they drop, they airdrop water, food, to people. Why can't they do that to their own people in New Orleans?
Unidentified Female: People have been in here since Monday. Today is Thursday. They have been telling us buses are coming, the buses are coming. Don't go to the Superdome, come to the Convention Center. We're at the Convention Center. Nobody not here.
Unidentified Female: It's not right. It's just not right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Maddow: Now, Governor, in your book, you describe the government response. No holds barred here, you describe it as pathetic, incompetent. That footage was four years ago today. You left the Homeland Security Department seven months to the day, actually, before -- before that happened.
I have to ask you, did everything just go to hell at DHS in the seven months after you left that agency, or do you think that you bear some responsibility for homeland security just failing the country so catastrophically after Katrina?
Ridge: Well, I guess if you want to send some responsibility my way, I would have to accept it. I don't think -- I think my team left in place some procedures and protocols that were ultimately used, but had they been used before, I think would have minimized the heartburn -- the heartbreak associated with the totally incompetent response of government at all levels.
I mean, I think the federal government naturally shares some of the blame, but the federal government didn't put everybody in that Superdome. The federal government didn't keep the buses in the parking lot and not evacuate people. The federal government didn't fail to call up the National Guard. So there's enough culpability there.
But I think that, as I say in the book, there were certain things that we developed that we left on the shelf. And had some of those things been used, I think, in preparation for the disaster -- because that's what FEMA does to a certain extent, and the department was prepared to do, rather than after the disaster, the tragedy and the heartbreak would not have been eliminated, but it would have been reduced.
Maddow: One of the things that you really focus on in the book is the proposal not just in terms of national preparedness planning, but also specifically that there ought to be regional response centers. You wanted there to be one in New Orleans.
Ridge: In New Orleans. Correct.
Maddow: That doesn't seem to be the lesson learned by the rest of the people in the federal government. That hasn't happened since. Why do you think that hasn't happened since? You make a case that that would have made a huge difference that day.
Ridge: I think it would have made a huge difference. I think the notion that as a former governor, you shouldn't be surprised that I think you can't secure the country inside the Beltway. You can't prepare -- you can't maximize your ability to prepare for a terrorist attack, respond to a natural disaster, respond to a horrible accident (ph) or criminal event from inside the Beltway. So our theory was in time, let's have eight regional centers, let's consolidate our capabilities to do all of these things over a period of time, and one of those areas would have been New Orleans. And one of the reasons you would have a primary federal official there associated with the federal government and DHS, because that individual would have the relationships with the mayors and the governors and oversee the preparedness.
And I'm hopeful that the book may generate some interest, whether it's our version of regions or other versions of regions. You have got to drive some of the oversight and some of the planning and some of the coordination out of Washington and put it at the regional level.
Maddow: Why did DHS not get blamed, broadly speaking, for what happened in the failures after Katrina? FEMA got blamed, and Michael Brown became a household word. His name because a household name, but the Department of Homeland Security, yourself having left seven months before and Michael Chertoff having been there, even as a person, Chertoff specifically, being sort of blamed in some of the congressional after-action reviews as to what went wrong, didn't end up becoming part of the legacy of the agency as a whole. It all came down on FEMA. Why do you think that is?
Ridge: Well, I think the primary responsibility to respond to this event was FEMA. But as you pointed out, and I appreciate you championing the Coast Guard, it's probably one of the most underappreciated, underresourced, multitasked organizations in the federal government. They did come to the rescue.
And I think, again, there was enough blame to go around. And we will never be able to -- it kind of undermined the confidence of the people generally in the federal government, I think frankly in the state and the local government. There's some culpability there.
But I think the most important thing in the aftermath of such a tragedy is there were lessons learned. FEMA did make significant changes afterwards, and I truly believe that in the event it would happen again -- remember, this is almost biblical, this is almost biblical in proportion. Nobody ever anticipated. We did have a plan on the shelf that said if there's something happened that overwhelmed the capability of FEMA and the state and local governments to deal with it, you can go to this plan. Well, they went to it after the incident happened rather than begin and implement it before.
Maddow: That shelf was not at that Superdome, though. And that is --
I mean, that is -- this is one of the great American tragedies of the life of our country.
Ridge: No question about it.
Maddow: We have to take one more quick commercial break. When we come back, if you don't mind, I would like to ask you about something that you write about -- I think in a pretty moving way in the book, about things that you said about Iraq, linking the issue of Iraq to homeland security. You say some criticism that you took for that was deserved, and you also have reflections on that. I would love to be able to talk to you about that if you have just another moment?
Ridge: If you don't mind, I don't.
Maddow: One episode that you write about in the book is about you saying in August 2004 that the president's leadership was causing us to better target our defensive measures here and away from home. And the implication was that going to war in Iraq was a defensive measure like homeland security stuff that we do here at home. You regret having said that, which the president asked you to say?
Ridge: Well, I do agree with it. I do agree with the president's engagement of Pakistan and getting the Yemeni intelligence service to get us the information that led us to make that decision. But, again, referring to our earlier conversation, we had a conversation among the president's homeland security group. We decided that the hard drive and the surveillance tapes on northern New Jersey, New York City and Washington merited us going up. So I'm going to hold a press conference. That's my job. I'm going to tell America what we're going to do. We're going to surgically apply the threat. We're going to raise the threat, which means more preparedness, more security.
At the last minute, at the request of some folks in the White House, who don't need to be named, they said, well, why don't you praise the president? I said, well, I never praised the president before, but I have got a bunch of people waiting out there, I'm going to go, and I threw the sentence into the press conference.
It became the sideshow. It marginalized the process. It had people then question -- you talk about politics -- when I used the president's name, and he deserved -- I mean -- it was because of the toughness towards Pakistan, that the intelligence service, blah, blah, blah. But got that hard drive. I should not have mentioned it, because it detracted from the real message, and that is the intelligence is real. The president's Homeland Security Council thinks we need to add security around these venues. So it marginalized my press statement, it marginalized the intelligence, and it became a side show, and nobody is more responsible for that than me.
Maddow: But when you said "targeting our defensive measures away from
home," this is August '04, so we are more than a year into the war in Iraq
with the implication there was that you were talking about Iraq.
Ridge: Well, the fact is that there was a war -- the war -- we were talking about the general war against these terrorists and our presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, the pressure we had to put on the Pakistani intelligence service to be -- to cooperate more completely and comprehensively with us resulted on us getting that intel. We acted on the intel and went up. I should have never mentioned the president's name, because it, again, created a perception -- we talked about this earlier -- that somehow politics were involved, but and politics was not involved in that decision. It was driven by intelligence.
Maddow: And that point I understand. But when I look at your record, I feel like, you know, you didn't slip in a reference to the president and a reference to Iraq once in this mention in 2004. You were a crucial authoritative part of making what turned out to be a false case to the American people about Iraq being a threat, and us needing to attack them.
February 2003, you said on ABC, "I agree that as the president has said, the world community has said this is a rogue regime that has chemical biological weapons, trying to develop nuclear weapons, has means of delivery. That's the reason this individual needs to be disarmed. The point in fact is that the world community has known for 12 years he's got chemical biological weapons, means of delivery, and that's precisely the reason of the United States and its partners are trying to disarm Saddam Hussein. He's a threat to his region, he's a threat to our allies. He's a threat to us."
You made that case on national television a month before we started invading. Do you regret that?
Maddow: Do you think it's true?
Ridge: At the time, I think it's true, and subsequent to that, the president's leadership and the things we have done have kept America safe.
Maddow: Do you think that Saddam Hussein was a threat to us at the time that we invaded?
Ridge: Based on not only the intelligence we had, but the intelligence we got from -- that was shared, I believe, it's been known by the Brits and by the French, they had used weapons of mass destruction, that he was, again, several intelligence agencies thought he still had them. And I believed -- I believed that if he had a weapon of mass destruction, a radiological, a crude radiological device, a nuclear device or something, for him to, if he had them, did I believe that he would give them to al Qaeda if he had them? The answer was yes. And so the presidentâ€¦
Maddow: That's what youâ€¦ believed it at the time.
Maddow: You don't still believe it, do you?
Ridge: Well, it's pretty clear that the intelligence communities of several countries who had assessed his -- who claimed that he had weapons of mass destruction, we haven't found them. So againâ€¦
Maddow: Do you think they might still be there and we just haven't found them?
Ridge: I doubt it. I think we covered that country. But there were other reasons to go in. That was the one that was -- that everybody focused on, and everyone who has been critical of the president for going into Iraq said we never found them. But I think the president made the decisions based on the facts and the intelligence as he knew it at the time, and I think it was the right decision at the time.
Maddow: You don't think that the administration, Vice President Cheney, your longtime friend, President Bush, the -- the intelligence system set up under Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, you don't think they had any role in skewing the intelligence to a foregone conclusion? You think it was an intelligence community -- intelligence community error and not a politicized decision? Really?
Ridge: Yes. Yes. I know some of these men better than I know others, but I don't think any one of these men would have contrived in their own mind a scenario without in their own mind and heart substantive belief based on information they received that the threat was real.
There's no way that anybody in that group -- I just -- they would commit our blood and our treasure to a cause if they didn't think it was necessary to commit our blood and treasure to a cause to keep America safe. The intelligence may have proven to be false, but there was no doubt in my mind that they were motivated to keep America safe.
In retrospect, we can say that the intelligence was faulty. Actually, we discovered a couple of times that when we raised the threat level, a couple of years later, there was one instance where it turned out to be faulty, but sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting. In this instance, if you thought they had weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations had sanctioned them so many times and nothing ever happened, and somebody had to make a move. And I find it rather difficult to think that anybody in this country would believe that people in charge of their government, Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, would commit our blood and our treasure to a cause if they didn't truly believe in their heart and their mind that it wasn't to protect America. I just reject that notion.
Maddow: I think that is an eloquent argument, and I have to tell you, I think you making that â€¦ argument right now is why Republicans after the Bush and Cheney administration are not going to get back the country's trust on national security. To look back at that decision and say, we got it wrong but it was in good faith and not acknowledge the foregone conclusion that we are going to invade Iraq that pervaded every decision that was made about intelligence -- looking back at that decision-making process, it sounds like you're making the argument you would have made the same decision again. Americans need to believe that our government would not make that wrong a decision, that would not make such a foregone conclusion -- take such a foregone conclusion to such an important issue, that the intelligence that proved the opposite point was all discounted, that the intelligence was combed through for any bit that would support the foregone conclusion of the policy makers.
The system was broken. And if you don't see that the system was broken and you think it was just that the intel was wrong, I think that you're one of the most trusted voices on national security for the Republican Party, and I think that's the elephant in the room. I don't think you guys get back your credibility on national security until you realize that was a wrong decision made by policy makers. It wasn't the spies' fault.
Ridge: Well, I think you're suggesting that it was only -- that it was driven by, quite obviously, the people who made the decision knew more about the threat than you and I do. And, again, I think it's a pretty radical conclusion to suggest that men and women entrusted with the safety of this country would predicate a decision upon any other bases other than to keep America safe. Later on, it may have proven that some of the information was inaccurate, but there were plenty of reasons to go into Iraq at the time; the foremost was weapons of mass destruction. That obviously proven to be faulty. But the fact of the matter is, at that time, given what they knew -- and they knew more than you and I did -- it seemed to be the right thing to do, and the decision was made in what they considered to be the best interests of our country.
We have been litigating it now for about five or six years. I guess we're going to continue to litigate it, and historians -- and the final history hasn't been written, because if Iraq -- if some form of self-governance, some form of democracy ultimately is achieved in Iraq -- and it's not going to look exactly like ours, but the Muslim world does admire freedom of speech; the Muslim world does admire democracy, as difficult as it is over there -- the notion that we went in improperly will be obviously reversed, and the history has yet to be written.
Ridge: Democracy in Iraq -- well, democracy in Iraq will make a huge difference not just for the men and women and the people and the families in Iraq, but for the entire region for a lot of reasons.
Maddow: If you can go back in time and sell the American people on the idea that 4,000 Americans ought to lose their lives and we ought to lose those trillions of dollars for democracy in Iraq, you have a wilder imagination than I do.
We were sold that war because of 9/11. We were sold that war because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction from this guy who didn't have them, and our government should have known it. And, frankly, a lot of people believe that our government did know it, and that it was a cynical decision. And maybe everybody wasn't in on it, maybe that is a radical thing to conclude, but I think thatâ€¦
Ridge: I don't share that point of view. You do.
Maddow: I know.
Ridge: I'm not going to convince you and you're not going to convince me, but I really appreciate the civil way we've had the discussion. Frankly, I think we would advance our interests as a country a lot further and a lot faster if we could have the discussions such as this. And I thank you.