As the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge knows how the fledgling agency works and he also knows how it should work better. Now that he's a private sector man, Ridge has been outspoken and refreshingly candid about how he thinks the agency should be improved.
In a recent event hosted by The Ripon Society in Washington, Ridge discussed what he thinks the current administration, and the next Congress, should address in order to improve national security.
Ridge criticized insufficient funding for the Coast Guard, specifically, as well as the the lack of a system to develop and distribute vaccines, according to this article in Government Executive.
In his remarks, Ridge said the national response to the H1N1 virus last year showed the country does not have an adequate system for developing, storing and distributing vaccines in response to a public health emergency.
But, Ridge went so far as to say that DHS should be overhauled and regional centers should be created around the country. He said that during his tenure at DHS he proposed establishing regional directors when the Bush administration was creating the new department, but his plan was rejected.
Such directors could develop close relationships with state governors in their regions, he said. And he questioned whether the government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have been better if regional structure had been in place. He said he doubted that storm victims would have had to seek shelter in the Louisiana Superdome or that buses would have been left unused in parking lots had that structure been in place.
Also, Ridge discussed the ongoing need for better communication systems and called for the creation of a broadband public safety network that enables first responders to communicate with each other. (Remember this story about how ancient the communication networks were in Maryland so that fire and police in neighboring counties couldn't communicate with each other?)
Ridge has previously commented on a blizzard of other security issues including aviation security, which he said was inadequate, saying “we're not doing a very good job” of securing America’s airports.
In that speech, he said the Transportation Security Administration needs to change the way it approaches security:
Ridge said that during his tenure as the head of DHS, he pushed for such a program that would collect biometric information and perform voluntary background checks to identify travelers. But the idea was not accepted for reasons he doesn’t understand.
When I spoke with him (*ahem*), he discussed the need for the private security sector to be more thoroughly engaged with the government’s security efforts and why the two sectors don't currently have a stronger partnership:
“So many men and women involved in private sector security have a background in the military, law enforcement or the intelligence world and, in my judgment, can and should be trusted with certain types of information, knowing full well their sensitivity to its public dissemination,” he said. “Why the government is so reluctant to share with these individuals, is beyond me.”
Obviously, DHS has a long way to go in its national security efforts, and, frankly, it's a mission that everyone knows will never be fulfilled. But there's always room for improvement and at least somebody's talking about how to make it better.