By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The first secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, discussed a threat never imagined by officials in the aftermath of 9/11— the increasingly complicated and challenging threat of domestic terrorism — during a forum at the Denver Art Museum this week.
“The challenge is much more complicated than we believed after we got over the horror and terror of 9/11 … We never thought there would be a domestic terror incident with links to groups like Al Qaeda,” Ridge said.
The Center for Empowered Living and Learning (The CELL) hosted “The Future of Terrorism: Homegrown Threat & the U.S. Response” that drew a capacity crowd Tuesday evening. The CELL’s founder, businessman Larry Mizel, kicked off the night’s discussion by asking everyone to come together to combat domestic terrorism. He said the CELL’s mission is to put an end to terrorism.
The program also featured Gov. Bill Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and was moderated by Craig Stapleton, a former U.S. Ambassador both to the Czech Republic and France and the father of Walker Stapleton, a Republican candidate for state treasurer. The elder Stapleton led the event as if it were a conversation among old friends as both he and Ridge attended Harvard together in the late 1960s.
Ridge was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to the U.S House in 1982 where he served six consecutive terms. He was elected as Pennsylvania’s governor in 1994 and again in 1998. George W. Bush considered Ridge to be a possible running mate in 2000 or his secretary of defense. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush appointed Ridge to head the Office of Homeland Security within the White House. In January 2003, the Department of Homeland Security became its own cabinet level department, and Ridge became its first secretary. He resigned in 2005 and currently runs Ridge Global, which provides strategic consulting services worldwide.
Before the forum Ridge signed copies of book, The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege … And How We Can Be Safe Again, where he wrote that his resignation from the Department of Homeland Security was due to an effort by Bush Administration officials to raise the terror alert level directly before the 2004 presidential election. Ridge also wrote he was frustrated by in-fighting that made it difficult for him to run a smooth operation.
Ridge opened the discussion with remarks that were highly critical of federal officials for not preventing two recent terrorist attacks at Fort Hood and on a Detroit bound flight last Christmas. Ridge said officials did not act on information linking the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hassan and the Nigerian man who attempted to light explosives hidden in his underwear, to radical extremist groups.
Ridge said the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, warned officials that his son was involved with radicals in Yemen and that Abdulmutallab should have been put on a no-fly list. Ridge also said officials knew Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter had been in contact with a radical cleric who has been tracked by the FBI since 1994. Ridge said the inability to act quickly has led and could lead to more disasters.
“We talk about connecting dots,” Ridge said. “Well sometimes the dots aren’t connected, but they’re large and blinking red … Sometimes something will jump out at you and you need to take action … Sometimes you need to act and if your wrong then ask for forgiveness.”
Ritter cited two recent examples of alleged homegrown terrorists in Colorado that authorities successfully acted upon — Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a 23-year-old Leadville woman connected to “Jihad Jane,” and the former Denver International Airport employee Najibullah Zazi of Aurora, who allegedly planned to attack New York City’s subway system.
“Tonight’s event is another example of community engagement and how our state continues to play a vital role in the fight against terrorism,” Ritter said. “Your participation in this fight is absolutely critical.”
Hickenlooper heeded the call for everyone to participate in the fight against domestic terror attacks. He said The CELL and its exhibit, “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism,” is vital in keeping the public educated and aware of terrorist warning signs.
“Information is power … you need to use that power,” he said. “There are things each of us can do to make our communities safer.”
Ridge said the need to share information is critical to combat domestic terror threats. He said he encountered a cold war mentality while heading the Homeland Security Department where officials are on a need-to-know basis.
“I am saying not only do we need to know,” Ridge said. “We need to share.”
Ridge said that despite what politicians say at home or abroad, there has been unified support among law enforcement and security personnel worldwide in an effort to share information and in defeating terrorist efforts.
“There is a recognition in the global community that this is a global scourge that can happen anytime, to anyone in anyplace, and that we need to work together,” Ridge said. “Despite the politics of top level officials in traditional allies like Germany and France who managed to garner a certain antipathy towards the U.S in order to further their own political careers, at the bottom levels there has been strong cooperation.”
As ambassador to the Czech Republican, Stapleton said that the Czechs had a left wing Prime Minister, but they still sent biological weapons experts to aide in the Iraqi invasion. And as ambassador to France, Stapleton said that although French President Jacques Chirac was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, the nation’s security personnel and military personnel couldn’t cooperate more with efforts to deter terrorism.
Ridge received glowing applause when asked about the Department of Homeland Security’s greatest accomplishment.
“Well nothing happened since 9/11,” Ridge said.
Ridge said critics of the Bush administration and the Department of Homeland Security for unconstitutional practices is unwarranted. He said Americans might be inconvenienced, but that the constitution has not been stepped on by the PATRIOT Act or their use of FISA. He said Americans are safer as a result of these practices.
The largest ovation of the night came when Ridge was asked about where to try terror suspects — in military tribunals or civilian courts.
“I don’t think they should be tried as criminals because they aren’t, they are terrorists,” Ridge said. “This is not a group of criminals trying to engage in criminal activities. This is a group of ideologues who have embraced that ideology. They want to use violence to achieve their goals.”
He said that suspects are afforded due process in military tribunals and also suggested that a separate terrorist court be set up with the country’s leading terrorism experts. Ridge said the debate as to where to try terror suspects highlights America’s greatness, because the country can correct itself through the democratic process.
Ridge said the key component to countering terrorism is to counter terrorist rhetoric. He said programs like Radio Free Europe should be used to pull people away from extremist ideology.
He said the goal is not to create American-loving democrats, but to remind them that terrorist groups kill more Muslims than non-Muslims, that terrorist ideology says nothing about improving economic or social conditions and to show them that millions of Muslims worldwide have embraced the modern world and that their current “brutal, exclusionary and radical” ideology is no place for anyone.
Ridge said Americans have dealt with incredible challenges throughout history and that Americans have always dealt with them. He called for the U.S. to deal with terrorism in ways that are consistent with the 200 plus years of American history.
“We’re not necessarily at war with a tactic, we’re at war with a belief system,” Ridge said. “We can win this war, but we must do it consistent with the American brand. America is the product and our value system is our brand, it’s the constitution, it’s the rule of law, it’s due process. It’s all of those things.”
The sold-out event was also well attended by political candidates and government officials, who went to an earlier reception for Ridge at which they were given a copy of his book.
The program was sponsored by The Denver Post, The University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Colorado Concern, Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership and The Colorado Thirty Group.
In the past, The CELL has hosted several speakers: Hussain Haqqani, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States; Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem; Zainab Al Zuwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress; Charles Stimson, Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary for Detainee Affairs; and U.S. Senators Chris Dodd, D-CT, Michael Bennet, D-CO and former Sen. Gary Hart, D-CO.