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US Homeland Security Czar resigns

Color-coded threat assessments won't be missed

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Former Pennsylvania Governor and recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge has resigned his post as America's top counterterrorism strategist.

Ridge, who is well liked personally by many, has had a controversial tenure in the post. For example, critics have ridiculed his use of a color-coded threat scale that confused the public, and to which virtually no one paid attention. He has also been accused of using the scale as a fearmongering device to bolster the Bush Administration's message that terrorists are lurking, and only the Bushies can protect us from them.

Ridge also received low marks for focusing too much attention on aviation security, essentially protecting the public from threats past, while ignoring novel avenues to attack that terrorists are more likely to exploit. Port security, for example, has received little attention, yet still offers many opportunities for serious mischief.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an outfit within DHS, has been widely criticized for making a mess of its no-fly lists (although they have successfully defended us against US Senator Edward Kennedy and former singer Cat Stevens); for invading the public's privacy with numerous data mining schemes of dubious security value; and for putting on a jolly show of security-mindedness that causes gross over-reactions to minor incidents and tremendous inconvenience to travellers.

Meanwhile, foreign visitors are now being fingerprinted, which many find offensive; and passports are going biometric, which, at best, can only ensure that the person bearing one is the person who applied for it, without actually identifying the person in question with any degree of certainty. These measures have little to offer in preventing a terrorist attack, although they might be of some value in investigating one after the fact.

DHS lacks any capacity for independent analysis of raw intelligence data, and can therefore only react to information that other agencies condescend to share with it. This has made it a largely ineffective bureaucracy with a somewhat neo-Confucian preference for form over substance.

In short, critics charge that Ridge's DHS has suffered from inadequate resources and authority; possesses a lack of imagination, preferring to work towards preventing what has already happened as opposed to what is most likely to happen; and exhibits a complacency that has turned security into a mere performance art meant to sustain mild public anxiety while at the same time persuading us that 'something is being done.'

In Ridge's defence, one might consider that the vast agency he headed didn't exist when he began and had to be organized from scratch. It absorbed myriad existing, and sometimes competing, federal agencies, and was limited in authority by the Bush Administration and Congress. So it's fair to say that DHS was designed to be more a piece of counterterrorist window dressing than an actual solution to the problems of defending a very large, and fairly open, country like the USA. Thus, without considerable structural change, the Department is unlikely to amount to much more than it is, regardless of who heads it.

Ridge will remain in place until a successor has been confirmed by the Senate. Possible candidates include former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Director Asa Hutchinson, currently the number-two man at DHS; former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Joseph Albaugh; White House Security Advisor Frances Townsend; and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) honcho Mike Leavitt have also been mentioned. ®

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