Why won't Tommy talk?

Homeland security chief Tom Ridge continues to rebuff congressional efforts to have him testify about post-Sept. 11 America.

Published March 20, 2002 5:37PM (EST)

Let me get this straight: While Tom Ridge and his Office of Homeland Security were spending months looking at swatches before unveiling their colorful terror alerts, their partners in safety over at the INS were routinely approving student visas for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi?

And through it all, Ridge has continued to rebuff congressional entreaties to testify. The Enron guys have come in, but not Tom "It's None of Our Elected Officials' Business" Ridge.

"We've got to find a way to break the impasse" said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Sunday, while raising the option that he may subpoena Ridge. "He's got to work with us. There is just too much at stake."

Like getting our priorities straight. I've got to believe Congress would agree that deciding if today feels like a "yellow" or a "blue" day isn't quite as important as figuring out a system that prevents the rubber stamping of visas for mass murderers. It's like placing the hijacked cart in front of the horse. And how exactly are we supposed to react to Ridge's readiness rainbow, anyway? At least when a smog alert goes into effect we know to stay indoors.

Since his much ballyhooed appointment in the wake of Sept. 11, Ridge has kept a lower profile than Mullah Omar -- a strategy that has raised doubts about his effectiveness.

And now comes the punch line-ready Color Wheel of Terror, the result, according to Ridge, of "countless conversations with first responders, local and state officials, business leaders and concerned citizens" -- and, one would imagine, the people in charge of R&D at Crayola. Now, I thought we were fighting a war, not running a policy coffee klatch. After all, Churchill's famous rubber stamp said "Action this day" not "Countless conversations this day."

So why would Ridge pick such a laughably lame initiative -- the war on terror equivalent of school uniforms -- as his coming-out party? Is it because his color scheme was the only idea on which he could get a consensus from the disparate agencies he is supposed to coordinate?

Upon assuming his post, Ridge stressed the need for avoiding the bureaucratic turf wars so endemic in Washington. But he has found himself hamstrung by precisely these kinds of petty power plays.

When he tried to take on problems at America's airports, he butted heads with the Transportation Department. When he tried to bring order to the administration's chaotic response to the anthrax attacks, he found himself jockeying for control with Health and Human Services. And when he proposed changing our nation's border security strategy, both Customs and the Justice Department cried foul.

"Let's face it," sniffed INS commissioner James Ziglar last month, "Tom Ridge's office is brand new. They are still getting organized. That's why they necessarily have to rely on us." A scary thought coming from the man who gave us the visas-for-hijackers screw up. Atta boy, James.

Even a no-brainer like the need to consolidate the responsibility for protecting the nation's food supply is being resisted by officials in the two relevant agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. As a result, a mind-boggling system persists where, for example, the FDA oversees the safety of cheese pizza and the Agriculture Department the safety of pepperoni pizza. And all Ridge can say is: "We have to see whether the system that has developed over the past two decades is the one we need in the future." Here's a hint, Mr. Ridge: It's not. And you need the power to change it, however many toes -- and pepperonis -- you step on.

Of course, Ridge should have seen all this coming from the beginning, when the president decided against making him a Cabinet officer with command authority over the many different departments that deal with homeland security. In their farsighted report, released seven months before Sept. 11, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman argued forcefully for exactly this.

"The president has not chosen the right model," Hart told me. "The Office of Homeland Security should be a statutory agency with budgetary authority. People obey people who have control over their budgets. What the president has done is the equivalent of putting the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in separate federal departments and have them coordinated by a White House office instead of a single secretary of defense."

Isn't Homeland Security at least as important as Veterans Affairs or Agriculture? So, instead of leading a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country, Ridge is in danger of becoming the Willard Scott of terror, standing in front of a multihued map, filling us in on the latest forecast: "Today will bring a severe risk of death and destruction to parts of the South, with partly scattered mayhem in the Great Lakes region over the weekend."

The bottom line is that Tom Ridge cannot effectively operate solely on his perceived chumminess with the president. He needs real authority and a real department. Without them, he's destined to spend another six months cutting up paper dolls and consulting with Martha Stewart about the hot new shades for 2003 instead of doing everything in his power to make America safer.

Color me homeland insecure. It's enough to make us all see red.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Homeland Security Tom Ridge