It might be tempting to think with the pre-release buzz surrounding “The Test of Our Times: America Under Seige … And How We Can Be Safe Again— that the book is a scathing tell-all. For his part, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge attempts a tell-all. But for readers who actually crack open the book, it hardly seems scathing or a tell-all.
Much like its author, the book is mild-natured, lacking much of the controversial flair ascribed to it on cable talk shows.
Ridge’s reflections on his time as the nation’s first head of the Department of Homeland Security are not devoid of criticism and some troubling instances, but in reading the book one comes away with the sense that, for the most part, Ridge is trying to be forward-looking as he details the past. Telling the stories of civil servants’ actions to defend the nation in a post-9/11 world seems to be more important than righting wrongs.
Nevertheless, the question as to whether Ridge experienced political pressure to raise the security level remains the principal topic of discussion.
It’s only after the first 235 of the book’s 277 pages that the instance in question — raising the security level before the 2004 presidential election — is discussed. However, readers only need to get to page 114 for an emphatic denial of the White House ever exerting pressure to raise or manipulate the alert system: “I was never directed to do so no matter how many analysts, pundits, or critics say so.—
But then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft remain a different story, as do the actions of some other members of the administration during other instances.
Changes to the color-coded alert level first required an administrative consensus before anyone presented recommendations to the president. In the 2004 case, as with many instances throughout Ridge’s tenure, the DHS was very reluctant to do so. Not only had the alert just been elevated in August 2004, but Ridge was leery of immunizing the public to the gravity of terror warnings.
Ridge asserts that one of his main goals in leading the DHS was building a trustworthy base of communication with the public. Given the nature and the timing of the October 2004 Osama bin Laden video, his team deemed an elevated security alert level unjustified.
Both in vigorous opposition, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld strongly supported an elevation, which Ridge found troubling. “I wondered, Is this about security or politics?’— he said. “Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.—
Ultimately, the threat level was not raised in the days leading up to the election, but Ridge reflects on the clashing views among the administration as “another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility, and security.— He also identifies the incident as solidifying his decision to leave the federal government.
Ironically, even though discussion of the episode has been largely overblown, it does serve as an appropriate illustration of Ridge’s tenure. Although President George W. Bush is never portrayed to have acted in an untoward manner (in fact, Ridge maintains his friendship and respect for the former president), his administrative appointees at times act in troubling ways, especially in regard to the nexus of politics and terrorism.
But there is more to the book than recounting politically charged disagreements and unknown tidbits about the first days of the DHS. Two other prominent themes include Ridge’s praise for unsung public servants as well as his reflections and prescriptions on different national security issues.
With every juicy tidbit in which Ridge disagrees with the Bush administration, there is a story of a DHS employee working long hours in a thankless position.
While some of this is tedious, the book has plenty of high-stakes drama too.
We learn that Ridge thinks that the “war on terror— descriptor was misplaced, believing terrorism to be a tactic instead. He nevertheless believes the administration’s fight to be waged in good faith against ideological extremism.
We learn that the new DHS never received the level of support the administration said publicly it would get. But we also learn that Congress has caused its own problems, requiring the DHS to testify to some 86 committees and subcommittees, wasting precious time and resources.
Ridge’s memoir will satisfy neither the Bush critic nor the Republican partisan, but it should be read. His is a balanced, fair account of the last administration. And in the approach to the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his advice calls us back to thinking about the unthinkable, raising interesting solutions that should be seriously evaluated.
The once-governor of Pennsylvania seems to hold true to the book’s non-crusading aim, which is refreshing in the age of “get-even— memoirs. To the extent that Ridge advocates, it is with a measured reflection on America’s pressing security issues and on what we must continue to do to both protect and live in a free society.