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Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge To the National Press Club

For Immediate Release

Office of the Press Secretary

April 29, 2003

MS. LYTLE:  This weekend marks the 100-day anniversary of America's newest cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security.  Its Secretary, Tom Ridge, has chosen the National Press Club as his podium to report the strides this department has made during that time in strengthening the domestic security of our country.

[ ...]

I'm very heartened to tell you that the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services granted asylum yesterday to Mohammed Odeh Al Rehaief, who provided critical information to our United States Marines which led to the location and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.

Mr. al Rehaief, his wife, and five-year-old daughter were brought to America earlier this month, after the Department of Homeland Security granted them humanitarian parole into the country.

Mr. Al Rehaief should know that Americans are grateful for his bravery and for his compassion.


[ ... ]

As you can well imagine, technology will ultimately be critical in our efforts to account for people who enter and leave the United States.  So today I'm pleased to announce that the United States -- or the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System -- you know that's leading to an acronym, I don't know if you caught it.  But it's USVISIT.

Well, don't sound so disappointed, for crying out loud.


SECRETARY RIDGE:  Oh, that was pretty good.  I wish I could take credit for making it up.  USVISIT will be in its first phase of operations at international air and seaports of entry by the end of 2003.

This system will be capable of using information, coupled with biometric identifiers, such as photographs, fingerprints, or iris scans, to create an electronic check-in/check-out system for people who come to the United States to work or to study or visit.

USVISIT will also provide a useful tool to law enforcement to find those visitors who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas.

All in all, USVISIT is a crucial new border security and enforcement tool that will capture point of entry and exit information by visitors to the United States.

Now, rather remarkably, a quarter century ago the United States stopped -- we actually stopped asking international visitors to register periodically with immigration authorities.  Yet, the responsibility to establish a check-in/check-out system is founded in U.S. law going back to the early '50s, most recently through the middle and late 1990s.

The Department of Homeland Security has taken up the responsibility to establish this much needed system that can enhance monitoring the 35-plus million visitors who come to the United States annually.

The basic idea is fairly straightforward.  We want to keep terrorists out without compromising the welcoming mat, since the founding of our country has long invited good people around the world to our shores to study and to work and to live out their dreams.

America remains and must always remain, a welcoming nation, and in that spirit, while the new VISIT system will make it more difficult to enter the United States illegally.  Once implemented, it will expedite the process for those who are entering the country lawfully.

And just putting it into perspective for you, I happened to be at a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles last Friday.  Forty-two hundred people from 135 countries made a choice; they made a choice to call America their home.  Rather remarkable when you think about it, 200-plus years into this great country.  And it seemed to me at that time that homeland security is about preserving everything that has attracted those 4200 people from 135 countries to seek entry and ultimately become citizens in this country.  It was quite a ceremony, and it goes to the very heart of what our mission is in the department.

I want to stress that the phase-in of the new VISIT system will provide us with the crucial biometric information needed to end the domestic registration of people from certain countries, which has been conducted for the past several months under a system known as NSEERS.

Yet another initiative launched in our first 100 days was the stand-up of the Homeland Security Center, a national 24-7 critical watch operation based within our Nebraska Avenue complex, launched with great speed, design, and enhanced by intelligence experts from all sectors and monitored with all due diligence.  The center is an all-eyes, all-ears approach that significantly increases our ability to assess threats and provide really an unprecedented full spectrum picture of the security status of the United States.

In fact, it marks one of the first and most successful coordinated, unified efforts between various component agencies -- the CIA, Health and Human Services, the FBI, the Department of Defense and others -- to centralize this critical homeland security function.  Working in tandem with our state and local partners, we will continue to build and to enhance the center's identification and assessment capabilities in the months and the years ahead.

As you all know, citizen preparedness is a key component of homeland security, and in February of this year the department launched one of the most widely recognized initiatives, the Ready Campaign, a national, multimedia public information program designed to build a citizens' preparedness movement by giving Americans the basic tools they need to prepare themselves better and their families in the unlikely, but possible, event of a terrorist incident.  You may know it -- you may know it as the "duct tape package."  But, in fact, that was just one of the elements in the emergency preparedness kit that some folks chose to highlight in an attempt to add some humor to what is obviously a very difficult subject to talk about, and that is the need to prepare for a potential terrorist event.

But I will tell you that the humor surrounding that one particular element in the kit certainly aroused enough national interest, because within a couple of weeks after we initiated the Ready Campaign, we had 100 million hits on the Web site.  So, obviously, people wanted to get ready, and we believe that when an incident occurs is not the time to prepare or to plan.  You've got to prepare and plan long before that occurs.

So we've had a great response to the Ready Campaign.  After all, every citizen of this great country has a role to play in ensuring the safety of our country.  Be it through prevention with your watchful eyes, be it through preparedness in the event of an attack, we're always stronger with citizens at our side.

Among other initiatives launched at DHS has been important funding of our states and cities for emergency preparedness and response.  I'm sorry I can't be here tomorrow to listen to my friend the Mayor of Boston, because the cities, very appropriately, and the governors have urged the Congress and the Administration, through the Department of Homeland Security, to secure as much funding as possible to assist them as they respond to both requests from the federal government, but also to build up a national capacity around this country as we go about preventing attacks and reducing our vulnerability to attacks.

In every way, this effort can be successful only if ceded to the cities and states across the country.  You cannot secure the homeland from Washington, D.C.  You can only secure it from the hometown.  If every hometown is secure, then the homeland will be secure.

In every way we recognize the challenges that states and localities face when planning to respond to a potential disaster, and that's why the department is committed to providing them with the tools they need to respond and, more importantly, to be ready, to be prepared.

 Already to date we've pushed millions of dollars out of the door by way our Office of Domestic Preparedness and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  All in all since March 1st, we've provided approximately $1.6 billion in funding through grant programs, worked with Congress to win passage of a much needed supplemental to gain additional funds, and today I'm pleased to announce that we're making an additional $1.5 billion available to states and cities as early as tomorrow to defray the costs of Liberty Shield and other preparedness measures.  So within a very short period of time, we have available to our partners at the state and local level in excess of $3 billion.

Now, additionally, this Thursday I'll be testifying before Congress to continue the funding dialogue so that all of our states and cities have the resources they need to be prepared and ready for all possible emergency contingencies.

And then, finally, without a doubt, since our start-up, we've taken a giant step forward in harnessing the power of our nation's homeland security resources, particularly in merging 22 separate, disparate agencies into one department, which Tami mentioned marked the largest federal reorganization since World War II.

As part of this merger, we reorganized all of our border functions, which creates one border dedicated to securing the borders and one dedicated to enforcement responsibilities and immigration concerns.

Along the same lines, I'm pleased to announce today that our Coast Guard service authorities have awarded two contracts totaling $129 million to Northrop Grumman Corporation Systems for initial development and delivery of the first new national security cutter.  

In the 2004 budget, the president has asked for the largest increase the Coast Guard's ever seen, a 10 percent increase, because as we keep adding additional responsibilities on top of this incredibly performance-driven agency, they need additional people and equipment in order to complete their mission.  

And this announcement today of the first new national security cutter is a part of their multiyear strategy, called the Deep Water Acquisition Project that will give them more people and new equipment to perform the multiple tasks that they do so well on a day-to-day basis.

As part of the service's Deep Water Program aimed at replacing aging offshore fleet, this initiative will allow us to continue to push our borders further out to sea.

As part of our reorganization efforts, we've also begun streamlining chains of command, establishing single points of contact within our department for outside agencies and law enforcement personnel, consolidating watch and warning functions into a unified, more effective system in the process of combining -- this is a real chore -- a real challenge -- combining the personnel and payroll systems of 22 agencies and 180,000 people.  It will take us a couple more days to get that done.

The goal is very straightforward.  We want all hands communicating, all resources working together as they should be, and all of this achieved as quickly as possible.  One team, one fight.  That's the picture of the Department of Homeland Security.

So the bottom line is this.  Everything we're doing, everything achieved in the department's first 100 days, from creating smart borders to developing the best of technology tools, from intelligence gathering to intelligence coordination, from partnering with the private sector to opening lines of communication with our regional, state and local responders, it all adds up to this:  Your country is ready rather than waiting.

And I commit to you that working with 180,000 of your fellow citizens that this nation will raise to a new level of readiness each and every day.  As long as there are those who value vengeance over life, nothing can be guaranteed.  However, in the event of an attack, this nation is certainly prepared to respond.

That's in large part because every day the men and women of DHS, along with this country's state and local authorities, believe that doing the right thing, with the right level of focus, is never optional.  It's an everyday requirement.  They have to be right in everything they do every single day.

So they go to work in this post-9/11 world knowing that what they do and how well they do it can mean the difference between life and death.  And they're comforted by your hopes and prayers for their good efforts, determined to be right in everything they do, knowledgeable.  And with the memories of citizens and soldiers who will never pass our way again, our people pledge to secure a country where duty and love of country and liberty transcend all else.

And so as I say to our enemies, what I said to them nearly 100 days ago, to those of you who want to get at us, you best never underestimate us.  Because Americans do not live in fear, we live in freedom, and we will never let that freedom go.

It's in that spirit that people of DHS, 100 days older and wiser and more efficient and more determined than ever to move further forward in our mission, will continue to build a nation where terrorism in any form posed by any group can never find sanctuary on American soil, a nation that is safe and secure for all those who call it home.

We are pledged to freedom.  We will fight for it.  And we will do everything possible so that it will endure for generations to come.

Thank you very much.

[ ...]

MS. LYTLE:  As you weave together these disparate agencies into one department, what are the major challenges you face in the next six months or a year?  And especially, how do you pull together such a hodge-podge of information and computer systems?

SECRETARY RIDGE:  First of all, there are a lot of people that believe this is really almost an impossible task; I will tell you that the glass at the outset is half-full.  It's not as if we've got to go out and recruit and then train 180,000 men and women.  Because until 9-11, in subsequent public discussions of what goes on at the border and what goes on at the airports and every place else, people never really saw their neighbors who may have one of those jobs as being responsible for the safety and security of the neighborhood or the country.

So I've got the advantage of working with 180,000 people who know what their mission is. They've been doing it for a long time. But suddenly it's been elevated in the public's eye so that people begin to appreciate on a day-to-day basis, just like the police and firemen, the folks at the border, the folks at the airport, the folks at the national labs, the folks in the Coast Guard, the folks at FEMA - they're integral and absolutely essential to us maintaining the security of this country and preparing ourselves in the event of an attack.

So we start with the glass half-full. Clearly there are some organizational challenges. There are dozens of personnel systems, dozens of pay systems, but those are systems. That has as much to do with enterprise architecture as it does with anything else.  

The biggest challenge we have, I don't think, is unifying the department because I think these men and women are pretty much unified around the mission - you know, one team, one fight, one enemy.  And they've been doing this a long, long time.

I think one of the most critical initiatives that we've undertaken, and the Congress gave us the capacity to do that, is to create a human resource system, a management system based on the principles of merit and fairness, but a management system that isn't based upon classification of personnel that's 40 and 50 years old - gives us an opportunity to build a 21st century management system to deal with issues of pay and recruitment and retention and gives us a kind of flexibility that we want in order to put -- move people around when necessary and take advantage of the talent and experience and resources we have.

The integration of the IT piece, the information and technology piece, is a monstrous task.  It's a huge task.  But again, they are systems. There are a lot of smart people out there that are in the process of helping us integrate the system.

Frankly, it's been a high priority for the President.  Frankly, one of the initiatives of this Administration is they operate through the Office of Management and Budget -- is we get a report card.  There's a management report card that Mitch Daniels and OMB gives to every department and agency in the federal government.  We start in the red.  Now don't get alarmed, don't misinterpret that.  We start because we're new.  We start at the ground level.  But we think we can build, we think, rather quickly to improve the management system, the technology system, the personnel system, because the Congress gave us the flexibility to do it.

[ ... ]

MS. LYTLE:  We have a number of questions about some of the civil liberties changes that have happened since September 11th.

This question asks, "Since we are fighting for freedom and liberty, how can you justify the loss of many civil liberties at home?"

SECRETARY RIDGE:  Well, I think it's very important to take a look at -- I'm kind of curious if there was more specific -- it's a rather significant allegation.  We're certainly more inconvenienced as a country.  There have been some detentions that have occasioned an expression, a public expression of concern.  But whenever there's the slightest incursion of anything we consider to be a civil liberty in this country in a transparent world called the United States of America with a system of government, it's not done unilaterally.  It still has to be done in public, and it's done with and through the review of the third branch of government, the judicial branch of government.

So some of these matters I think the question is referring to have been taken to the court,  and the President does have certain emergency powers at the time of war to do, to detain people, to do some things that the President and other have -- do not have when we're not in conflict.  So again it depends on the -- if they were more specific, I'd try to give you a specific answer.  

But let me tell you one thing we do have in our Department of Homeland Security relevant to the question.  The Congress created two offices within the new Department that we will integrate at the front end of our organizational and policy and program efforts.  There's a civil liberties officer and a privacy officer.  And I think America needs to be assured that these men and women will be very much a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  So that everything we do that may -- that touches on those areas will be vetted before we move ahead.

We're not going to surrender.  If we surrender indirectly the freedoms that one million plus Americans have died for over the past couple hundred years, if we do that, then the terrorists secure a different kind of victory.  

We can never afford to let them win indirectly what they'd like to somehow achieve directly. And certainly they'd like to see us change dramatically how we react to one another, and alter the liberties and freedoms we enjoy.  We will not do that.

From time to time we will do things a little bit differently. Some people interpret those as being an infringement on civil liberties, but you don't do it unilaterally in this country.  If somebody questions it, it's subject to review.  And again, for the most part, under exigent circumstances during wartime, the courts have given our President and the Executive Branch a little more leeway than they might otherwise have.  And we know that in the new Department we have those individuals working with us to protect privacy and civil liberties within our Department.

MS. LYTLE:  Before I ask the last question I just wanted to present you with a certificate of appreciation for being here today and a National Press Club mug.  And since this is your second appearance, that gives you a matched set.

SECRETARY RIDGE:  I can drink with both hands now.


MS. LYTLE:  And the last question is, 'Have you bought any stock in duct tape companies?"




MS. LYTLE:  I'd like to thank you all for coming today.  I'd also like to thank National Press Club staff members Melinda Cooke, Pat Nelson, Joanne Booze, Melanie Abdaw-Dermott and Howard Rothman for organizing today's lunch.

Thank you also to the NPC library for research, and good afternoon.