Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of homeland security, said on Tuesday the U.S. faces much graver threats to its national security today than when he was in charge of protecting Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“The risk of terrorist attacks in multiple forms is greater today than it was in 2003 when the Department of Homeland Security was created,” Ridge, a former Republican governor from Pennsylvania, said in a wide-ranging interview.
Ridge outlined a series of factors -- from an al-Qaeda network that has “metastasized” far beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan to the emergence of the powerful and sophisticated ISIS in Syria and Iraq capable of recruiting and training westerners to wage war on their own countries.
He cautioned that the recent terrorist attacks in Denmark, France, Australia and Canada could be a precursor of renewed attacks on U.S. soil. “I see on multiple levels that the threat is greater today than it was,” he said.
Ridge is a prominent Republican who has specialized in homeland security matters for well over a decade. He has joined with former DHS officials in trying to persuade GOP lawmakers to abandon their effort to use the DHS spending bill as a lever to block implementation of President Obama’s executive orders protecting nearly five million illegal immigrants from deportation.
Last month, the House passed a bill to keep DHS fully funded through the rest of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, but linked it to provisions blocking the department from implementing the executive orders.
Senate Democrats have insisted on a “clean” bill shorn of the immigration language, which has left Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) six votes shy of the 60-vote super majority needed to pass the legislation. Even if he could somehow push through the House-passed version, Obama has vowed to veto it.
In short, it’s a legislative and political mess.
Ridge and two other former DHS secretaries – Republican Michael Chertoff and Democrat Janet Napolitano – recently signed a letter to McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) urging them to avert a spending crisis. The crisis could weaken a department responsible for, among other things, immigration, border security, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service.
“We do not question your desire to have a larger debate about the nation's immigration laws,” the three wrote. “However, we cannot emphasize enough that the DHS’s responsibilities are much broader than its responsibility to oversee the federal immigration agencies and to protect our borders. And funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration.”
A Problem for Ordinary People
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson says a partial shutdown would be highly disruptive for everyday Americans. White House officials and congressional Democrats last week ramped up their warning that Republicans were threatening the country’s safety at a time of heightened concern about ISIS expanding beyond Syria and Iraq.
Some Republicans say the impact of a partial DHS shutdown would be minimal, because most of the department’s 230,000 employees are deemed “essential” and must report for work even without pay.
Ridge said he had no doubt most DHS employees will do the right thing and report for work even if the short-term spending runs out this month. He also agreed strongly with congressional Republicans that Obama’s executive orders smack of an “imperial presidency” that has gone far beyond the pale. But he repeatedly criticized members of his own party for using DHS employees as pawns in a chess game to try to block the president’s immigration policies.
He described their efforts to block the DHS spending bill as “political insanity” and said it would backfire on the GOP, since most Americans will blame the new majority in Congress for precipitating the crisis.
“From a political point of view, outside of the Beltway, there is only one party that is going to be held culpable and responsible by Americans, and that’s the Republican Party,” Ridge said.
Indeed, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll, 53 percent of Americans said they would blame the GOP-controlled Congress if the DHS must shut down all but essential services. Meanwhile, 30 percent said they would blame Obama and 13 percent said both would be at fault.
“If we don’t like [Obama’s] immigration policy, then let’s send him … a piece of legislation that does things your way, not his, and let him veto it,” he added. He said Republicans would be better off leaving the constitutional controversy over Obama’s executive actions to the courts instead of the political arena.
Ridge, 69, was named the nation’s first homeland security secretary in early 2003 after President George W. Bush created the department. He currently heads RidgeGlobal, an international security and economic consulting group headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: