The nice watchman

By Joshua Chaffin

Financial Times

Published: August 6 2004 19:51

In February 2003, when the newly created US department of homeland security warned Americans of a heightened terrorist threat, the reaction was immediate. Panicked citizens rushed to hardware stores for supplies of duct tape and plastic sheeting that might shield them from biological attacks.

When Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, announced the latest terror warning last Sunday, the reception was quite different. Americans seemed more sceptical than unnerved when told of ‚alarming‚ information that al-Qaeda was preparing to attack the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions in New York and Washington. The stock market - one of the more useful gauges of post-September 11 panic - even enjoyed modest gains the following day. Some prominent Democrats voiced a widespread suspicion that the ‚alert‚ was a politically motivated White House ploy to distract attention from the recently concluded Democratic National Convention.

Although Mr Ridge and the Bush administration strongly denied such claims, the public reaction spoke volumes about Americans' estimation of Mr R idge and the department he leads. Just 18 months after its creation, the homeland security department is widely regarded as fumbling in its approach to the threat of terrorism.

The department's moves to place air marshals on flights and require the locking of cockpit doors have not fixed the vulnerability of the nation's airlines - let alone its ports, chemical industries, office buildings and other potential terrorist targets. And Mr Ridge, far from being a reassuring presence for Americans, has been much criticised and even lampooned - particularly as the manager of a rainbow-hued ‚threat-o-metre‚, with all the sophistication of Sesame Street.

‚I don't think there's anyone who thinks the department is functioning the way it should,‚ said Neil Livingstone, chief executive of Global Options, a security consultancy and a long-time member of the intelligence community. The feeling in the security community is that the department is a bureaucratic Frankenstein's monster, ‚slapped together ‚ in Washington in the frantic and politicised days after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks with little consideration for how it would actually work.

That assessment is particularly troubling at a time when Washington appears to be moving to enact another bureaucratic fix - the imposition of a national intelligence director. That position, and a new counter-terrorism centre, was reluctantly embraced by George W. Bush on the urging of the independent commission that investigated the September 11 attacks. Critics say the new post would create another layer of bureaucracy without addressing the failings of the underlying agencies. ‚Both of these things suffer from the same thing,‚ said Jack Devine, a former Central Intelligence Agency official. ‚I don't think there was a real debate in Congress about homeland security. It was pushed through overnight.‚

One consequence is that the new intelligence director would effectively take away a key mission that Congress entrusted to Mr Ridge: to co-ordinate foreign and domestic intelligence.

The evident loss of clout has added to speculation that Mr Ridge, 58, will leave his post regardless of whether his boss and good friend, Mr Bush, wins re-election in November. Just four years ago, the popular two-term governor of Pennsylvania was considered the leading candidate to be Mr Bush's running mate. He has the sort of square jaw and life story that make political strategists salivate.

Born with a hearing impairment in Pennsylvania's industrial Steel Valley, Mr Ridge won a scholarship to Harvard University and was later drafted out of law school to serve in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star. He is universally described as ‚affable‚ and ‚decent‚, and won acclaim as a moderate Republican governor who was tough on crime but also preserved abortion rights.

Mr Ridge's close relationship with Mr Bush, once seen as an asset that would guarantee his access at the White House, may now be a liability, contributing to criticisms that his warnings have been politicised to help the president. Similarly, the qualities that made Mr Ridge a well-liked governor may be ill-suited for his current job - considered among the most difficult in Washington. The ideal homeland security director might require a darker, more Hobbesian view to imagine all the terrible ways that terrorists might try to harm Americans - from using aircraft to poisoning food supplies.

The job also calls for bureaucratic tenacity, as the department - with its $40bn budget and 170,000 employees - is an amalgam of 22 agencies, from the customs division to the coast guard. Members of Congress have already angled for slices of pork from Mr Ridge's budget, which helps explain why high-risk areas such as New York City have had to share money with local governments in Wyoming and Montana. There is a similar need to contend with heavyweights at the justice department, the CIA and the Pentagon, who remain on the frontlines of the war on terror and have shown little inclina tion to cede power.

It was telling, after air patrols were cancelled over New York, that a defence department official was quoted saying they only informed the homeland security department of final decisions.

‚These things become powerful when you have someone who demands authority, and keeps pushing,‚ a former intelligence official said of Mr Ridge's post. ‚I think we would have been in better hands with someone who was going to break rice bowls.‚ The naming of a new intelligence director - when it happens - may indicate whether the White House has taken that advice to heart.