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FDL Book Salon Discusses “The Test Of Our Times” With Gov. Tom Ridge

9780312534875.jpg[As with all book salons please be polite to our guest, and take all off-topic discussions to the prior thread. Thanks! — CHS]

Some folks might have qualms or questions about our having a Republican on FDL for a book salon. Not me.

It’s high time we started talking to one another about the issues, rather than talking past each other in a political frenzy. Especially regarding issues which in years past were supposedly held above the political fray: national security, intelligence matters, and the rule of law.

All were previously held — if only in public lip service — as being too important to be crassly politicized.  Especially in the wake of 9/11, when we saw much of the nation pull together in unity of purpose in a way that it hadn’t since WWII.

But, as Tom Ridge himself says in "The Test Of Our Times," it didn’t last nearly long enough (p. 113), if it ever truly existed as anything but a publicly painted mirage:

Many observers, including those in the media and most Democrats, believed that the Republican Party had used terrorism to leverage political support. After all, Karl Rove and the reelection team decided to ride counterterrorism and national security to victory in the 2004 reelection campaign.

Gov. Ridge goes on to say — in several places — that while he had his own qualms at times about US policies and/or individual motivations, decisions made were ultimately not politicized in his opinion.

And yet?

The results of those decisions had substantive political impact nonetheless. The back and forth on terror alert changes has gotten the bulk of the media attention on Gov. Ridge’s book, including the fact that post-election analysis showed that those terror alerts demonstrated a significant increase in presidential approval every time they happened (p. 237). 

But I’d like to highlight another incident (p. 233), wherein just prior to giving a press briefing Ridge was contacted by the White House and asked to insert very specific, highly political language:

Near the end, I provided the words the White House wanted: "But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror. The reports that have led us to this alert are the result of offensive intelligence and military operations overseas, as well as strong partnerships with our allies around the world, such as Pakistan. Such operations and partnerships give us insight into the enemy so we can better target our defensive measures here and away from home." Little did I realize that one phrase in that paragraph would become press fodder for weeks and make me a target for media criticism that I must admit was justified. . . .

. . .Our announcement, as delivered with the loaded words, was seen by some as a way to divert attention from [John Kerry’s nomination at the DNC] and to reenforce in the minds of Americans that — even as the Democrats enjoyed their hour upon the political stage — only the Republican incumbent could keep America safe.

The date of this press briefing? August 1, 2004.  Connecting this with politicization wasn’t exactly difficult, was it? Ridge doesn’t say from whom that request came, but it’s certainly worth asking whether it came from Andy Card, Karl Rove or elsewhere, isn’t it?

Another question left unanswered is why Gov. Ridge agreed to read such a questionable statement when he had serious qualms about it. 

Hindsight being what it is, there are a number of policies and actions raised in the book which need further discussion.  Including why the better road wasn’t traveled in so many places including the DHS plan for regional offices and better FEMA infrastructure locally which might have alleviated so much of the mess after Katrina (p. 218) — a policy which got shelved in early 2004.

Throughout the book, Gov. Ridge details qualms he had with any number of Bush Administration policies which were outside his Homeland Security portfolio, but which certainly impacted the issues surrounding our national security including that here within our borders.

Ridge discusses the need for better balance of civil liberties and rule of law concerns against national security decisions, and cites Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib as a huge stain on the nation’s reputation (p. 152):

The [2006 National Intelligence Estimate] . . .concluded that the Iraq War made the overall terrorism problem worse. It pointed out that the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fueled anti-American feeling. Our enemies will forever exploit those rare occasions when America’s actions are inconsistent with our traditional, respected values system. At minimum, they provided more grist for their propaganda mill. At worst, they were recruiting posters for terrorists-in-waiting.

Those questioning the wisdom of our policies included staunch allies, with the German Interior Minister arguing that US failure to provide some legitimate form of due process for detainees violated the very legal principles on which the US had stood (p. 146).  Ridge talks about the need to strengthen global relationships (p. 186, 192) and not pull inward or spend time lecturing other nations about values which we were no longer fully following (including on torture and indefinite detention – p. 276), the disrespect for Congress and the rule of law in the FISA end-run (p. 109), and many, many others.

And yet? Despite substantive issues with these policies, Gov. Ridge doesn’t detail ever raising these qualms with the policymakers responsible for the questionable policies.

Why were they not raised for internal debate? Or were they?

This has been a troubling common theme and concern over the last few years. It raises a significant question for which there is no one, easy answer: do you stay and try to work within a department where policies are flawed in order to perhaps change those policies for the better, or do you resign trying to draw attention to wrongdoing when it becomes clear that a change will not be forthcoming?

I’ve heard this time and again from those at the Department of Justice and elsewhere.  We certainly heard about it during Jim Comey’s testimony before Congress regarding the internal dissent on the FISA domestic spying policies when Comey and others at DOJ and Bob Mueller at the FBI all considered resigning en masse at one point. And there were other events as well: the internal revolt at DOJ’s appellate section, where large numbers of attorneys refused to work on briefs justifying policies which they felt were contrary to the rule of law; within the civil rights division at DOJ; within the EPA; and on and on.

This is nothing new in government. The famed resignation of two NSA employees over the bombing of Cambodia by the Nixon administration is one prominent example, as is the AG Elliott Richardson resignation over Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre firing of Archibald Cox.

But they come down to a fundamental question:  is a government employee’s loyalty to a particular president or political party?  Or is it to the nation as a whole and enforcement of the rule of law?

It’s easier to answer that question from the outside when it isn’t your own job and reputation on the line, or the future of the employees who work under you. Not so easy when you are standing in the middle of a political maelstrom. And I hope that now that Gov. Ridge is standing on the outside, he might give us some thoughts on this.

With that, I open the floor to your questions and ask that you help me welcome Tom Ridge to the FDL Book Salon.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com