November 30, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

After Ridge? Much Done Much Still to Do

Secretary Tom Ridge's recent resignation marks the end of a historic tenure. As the Department of Homeland Security's first secretary, he had to be "on-watch," protecting the nation against terrorist attacks every day, while at the same time building an organization to serve the nation well into the 21st century. Ridge leaves a legacy of many accomplishments. His successor, however, still has much work to do, learning the lessons of the department's first years and restructuring the organization for the future.

Homeland security is a strategic problem, and in areas of strategy, thought should precede action. Ridge's greatest contribution to responding to the attacks of 9/11 was in forging a national homeland security strategy, a strategic approach to fighting terrorism. The fundamental principal of that strategy was building a "layered defense"-a balance of initiatives working together to prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks. As Homeland Security Secretary, Ridge began building the foundational pillars of a truly national homeland security system. These included:

  • Establishing the US VISIT program. This automated entry/exit system will, for the first time in our nation's history, allow immigration officials to account for visitors entering and leaving the country. It uses biometric data to verify identities, an added precaution to prevent fraud and screen for terrorists.
  • Implementing the Container Security Initiative, a cooperative agreement with foreign ports to identify, target, and search high-risk cargo.
  • Creating the first-ever National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes standardized processes and procedures for managing incidents for all emergency responders, whether federal, state, tribal, or local.
Ridge's successor will have a significant legacy upon which to build, but there is still much work to be done. Ridge's effort was slowed by significant flaws in the organization established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Several fixes are needed, including:

  • Enhancing integration of department activities and building an integrated leadership culture by creating an undersecretary for policy, an assistant secretary for international affairs, and an executive leadership program.
  • Establishing a "flatter" department by consolidating agencies in border and transportation security and reorganizing directorates with regard both to preparedness and response and to intelligence.
  • Rationalizing security spending by establishing risk-based mechanisms for department-wide resource allocation and grant making.
  • Clarifying authorities and national leadership roles for biodefense, cyberdefense, and critical infrastructure protection by establishing and empowering lead executives.
Working with Congress to address these shortfalls must be the new Secretary of Homeland Security's first priority.


James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow