Ridge: We're Ready to Fight Homeland Terror

Newly-minted Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday challenged any would-be evil-doers, saying the United States is vamping up security to be ready for any threat that comes its way.

Ridge, sworn in last Friday as the first secretary of the new Cabinet-level department, stressed that President Bush is committed to funding the agency enough for it to effectively secure the U.S., "so we will be ready to answer every danger and every enemy that faces the American people."

"The sheer depth and breadth of this nation, the magnitude of what occurs here from sea to shining sea means that one slip, one gap, one vengeful person can threaten the lives of our citizens," Ridge told security agents at the Port of Miami. "This nation will rise to a new level of readiness and preparation every single day."

The president has requested $41.3 billion requested for DHS this year, Ridge said, and the overall fiscal 2004 budget for the department represents a 64 percent increase in spending over just two years ago.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have criticized the Bush administration for not giving the new agency the tools it needs to properly deal with the mass of threats facing the nation and its citizens.

Ridge added that no matter what the threat may be, the United States will be ready for it.

"Whether your threats come by a suitcase or by a suicide bomber, pathogens in the air or armed passengers on an airplane -- no matter the weapon of choice -- we will use every tool at our disposal to stop you," Ridge said. "To our enemies … we are coming after you."

With senior homeland security border officials at his side, the secretary said border functions will be split into two units.

The first arm, called the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, will bring together approximately 30,000 employees, one sixth of the entire Homeland Security Department. It will incorporate into one body the Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and agriculture inspectors.

The second arm , the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will incorporate approximately 14,000 employees. Their core mission will be enforcing the full range of immigration and customs laws within the U.S.

More than 1 million people cross U.S. borders daily, while 1.6 million people board planes in the United States. Ridge said homeland security agents are watching about 95,000 miles of coast line and checking 2.4 million pieces of luggage entering the nation's 429 commercial airports. Tons of imported food products will be inspected, as will thousands of visas and passports.

A General Accounting Office report on Thursday revealed that border guards both in Washington and California and at Miami's International Airport failed to authenticate fake identities handed over by congressional investigators determined to find cracks in the security network.

Ridge said that action, particularly vigilance on the part of Transportation Security Administration workers and INS officials, is the only way to ensure security.

Since he was chosen as Bush's homeland security adviser shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ridge has stressed that state and local officials will have increased access to the White House on homeland security matters and will get the information they need to protect their regions. Local officials have long complained that while they have been sending threat information to the top bureaucratic levels, they have been getting little in return.

Ridge on Thursday reiterated the commitment, saying, "We have to make sure the communication goes not from the top down, but goes in both directions. It's all about getting everyone to communicate with each other."

And since the private sector controls about 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructures -- such as computer networks, energy grids and the like -- DHS will work to foster and nurture relationships with that sector, Ridge said.

Ridge said his newly created department will also work closely with the FBI, Justice Department, Defense Department and other branches of government to make the Terrorist Threat Integration Center a reality. The center, a clearinghouse for analyzing and organizing intelligence information, was announced by Bush in his state of the union address Tuesday.