NEWS

Former DHS Chief Calls Interoperable Communications Failure "a National Disgrace"

By Matthew Harwood

WASHINGTON--Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called the United States’ inability to achieve interoperable communications between first responders “a national disgrace” during a speech Wednesday that assessed how far homeland security has come since 9-11.

Addressing the U.S. Chamber of Congress, Ridge said it was “simply unbelievable...that on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, knowing what transpired at the Twin Towers,” that an interoperable communications system had not been established in the United States.  

“We had the capacity. We had the technology. But what we don’t have is the political courage and the focus of trying to help these men and women who we celebrate with speeches,” the nation’s first homeland security secretary said, taking a shot Congress’s inability to set aside a portion of the nation’s airwaves, known as the D Block, exclusively for first responders.

Ridge also defended his former agency for not stopping underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day two years ago. “People wondered: ‘How could he get on the plane?’ Well because the State Department never told the Department of Homeland Security to yank his visa,” Ridge said, noting that the terrorist’s father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had become radicalized.

Ridge described DHS as a consumer of information, which relies on the intelligence community and state and local authorities to share the information it needs to protect homeland security. “It can only act on information given to it.”

One area Ridge said that had gotten better but still needed to improve was information sharing. “We need to create a culture of information sharing where everyone feels empowered to hit the send button,” he said, stating the government is about 60 percent there.

Overall, Ridge said the United States had become a better prepared and more resilient nation since al Qaeda’s coordinated attack on 9-11 and provided a list of accomplishments.

In a decade’s time, we’ve strengthened our intelligence assets. We’ve partnered with allies and friends. We’ve captured and killed terrorists. We’ve destroyed safe havens in Afghanistan and around the globe. We’ve stood up a new department of homeland security....Federal state and local authorities repositioned as the country embraced an emotionally charged and strategically driven national mission. And we did so with an eye toward the safekeeping of our civil liberties, our Constitution, and we always thought it was very important to maintain the integrity of the American brand. We improved preparedness and response capabilities and we established layers of security throughout our aviation system. We invented new technology, employed finger-based screening and radiation portals at our ports of entry, designed new entry systems for those international passengers arriving to visit or to do work or become students inside the United States.

Looking back at his tenure in the Bush administration, the former homeland security chief admitted that he had misgivings about the phrase “war on terror” after 9-11. “Terrorism is a tactic,” he said. “It’s tough to wage war against a tactic, because a tactic is a device used by those who have been opposed to causes for centuries. It’s really a war against a belief system, an ideology of hatred.”

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