In the five years since the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, submitted its final report, the U.S. has undergone a security transformation. While much has been accomplished, gaps still remain. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security and a former governor of Pennsylvania, sits on the National Security Preparedness Group, a bipartisan team assessing progress of the Commission’s recommendations. The president and CEO of Ridge Global spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about some of those gaps and ongoing challenges along the Canada-US border.

Based on your group’s findings, what are the most significant areas in American security that still have not been addressed?

There are still some gaps that we are particularly concerned about – the lack of interoperable communications, particularly the development of a public safety broadband communication network. This was raised as one of the highest priorities. We’ve made some substantial progress, but it is still a concern. There has been a great deal of attention and many speeches, but little funding or action.

There also remains a concern that information sharing is still not as robust as we believe it should be. And, the integration of data systems is still loping along at an incremental pace – we’d like to see that sped up. By and large, I think that the preparedness group gave the government pretty decent marks on these issues. But it’s a big challenge.

A chief concern for everyone after 9/11, and for that matter after the debacle with Hurricane Katrina, was the failure – the technical inability – to communicate. Interoperable communications and the notion of a broadband network for all public safety, whether you’re dealing with a terrorist attack, weather event, criminal event or accidental event that jeopardizes lives and property – you really need that system. We’re going to keep pushing on that.

Is the lack of progress more about politics than process at this point?

It is, but that might be too easy. The sense of urgency, at least on this issue, has been lost. People were screaming at the top of their lungs at the inability of first responders to communicate with each other in the Twin Towers. Testimony after testimony before the 9/11 Commission stressed that we needed an interoperable system: not equipment – there are all kinds of devices that can patchwork some capability – but a broadband public safety network. Where there’s a will there’s a way and right now, for whatever reason, there does not seem to be the political will, but there is certainly a way.

One of the objectives in the Canada-U.S. dialogue after 9/11 was to ensure better intelligence and enforcement cooperation. By most accounts that has improved – we hear anecdotally that some Canadian agencies have better relationships with their U.S. counterparts than they do with other Canadian agencies. Has that progress been lost on Washington? Do these initiatives lack visibility where it matters?

I’m glad to learn that some of the initiatives undertaken in the Smart Border Agreement that John Manley and I crafted after about a year and a half of hard work have led to measurable success in harmonizing relations and information sharing. I couldn’t help but notice that Secretary [Janet] Napolitano recently signed the “Shiprider” agreement matching RCMP with our Coast Guard. We began those discussions several years ago when I was secretary. It is an expansion of one of the initiatives in the Smart Border Agreement to increase the number of Interagency Border Enforcement Teams (IBETS). I’m glad to hear that.

The challenge has been, I believe, that other issues in the United States, most of them economic, some of them political, seem to have overridden any sense of urgency or necessity to continue to build resiliency into our country and add more security measures. Hopefully we will come back to it. For the moment, for example, we have an emphasis on cyber security more so than border security.

I might add that one of the challenges we have – and that Secretary Napolitano has – is that there are differences in how we can act with our friends to the North and to the South. There are different levels of maturity, different levels of experience working together, different levels of competence. I think she has made great progress. But we can never, ever, in my judgement, view both borders as the same. Historically, culturally, linguistically, experientially, they have never been the same; they never will be the same. You have to take a slightly different approach to both borders as you try to build the kind of collaborative agreements you need for mutual security.

While there has been a great deal of collaboration on border initiatives, many of which you were involved in, trade groups such as the Railway Association of Canada recently said, “Never have we seen such uncertainty and volatility.” Do the barriers we hear about now suggest we have not done enough? Or too much?

There may not be as many barriers as it seems. Part of our objective as a department, and my personal objective as secretary, to the extent that government institutions, cultures and legal aspects were compatible, was to harmonize as much as possible. There are some cultural and historic differences that would prevent us from doing that, but to the extent that we could embed standardized approaches towards the same problem, towards the same solution sets, it just seems to be a good idea to do that. And the only way you do that is through persistent communication, honest and candid discussions with regard to the solution set and a sustained effort to solve the problem. I have no idea what the nature of the relationship is today between DHS and its counterparts in Canada, but there is so much interaction that goes on beneath the level of the secretary and her counterparts, and it is only through those continuing conversations that we can resolve some of these issues. You can’t just show up quarterly or semi-annually and solve them. There has to be constant communication.

Following Secretary Napolitano’s early call for a review of the northern border, there was some concern as to what this might mean. You’ve mentioned cyber security as a priority of the new administration. Are there other areas that should be emphasised?

There are some, such as critical infrastructure, that both countries enjoy. I don’t know how deep a dive either country has taken into security of bridges and river ways. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for the economies of both is the electric grid. We export a lot of energy resources to Canada but you generate some power that we rely upon in certain parts of our country. As we continue talking about energy legislation in the United States, I hope we look at it with an eye towards its potential impact on the power that is generated from Canada. There are a lot of these very subtle but very important issues that have to be discussed. One that probably hasn’t received as much attention as it might in the future is CIP [critical infrastructure protection].

Let me tie that back to cyber security. There has been a lot of talk about possible Pentagon cyber initiatives, but given the amount of critical infrastructure that is in private hands, and the amount that crosses the border, do we need a bi-national strategy? A bi-national command? Something akin, perhaps, to NORAD?

That makes enormous good sense. The interconnectedness of both countries as it relates to critical pieces of infrastructure – I can’t think of anything that’s more important than the flow of not only goods and people but also energy. And as you go about protecting that, a bi-national group, including the private sector, focused on cyber security as it relates to common assets and common needs seems to me to be a very sound, responsible approach to take.

One of the challenges with cyber security is that government can’t do it alone; the military can’t do it alone. You need private sector participation. And you need some standards. It will be a long, long time, I suspect, before we can get certain nations around the world to agree to any kind of cyber security standards, if there ever will be agreement. But certainly, working with Canada would be a good place to start. If the U.S. and Canada, given our friendship and respect for each other’s cultures and legitimate differences in governance, can agree on standards, agree on protocol, that would be a magnetic protocol for a lot of other countries to follow.

A few years ago, there was a great deal of discussion about continental security, stimulated in part by the Bi-national Planning Group report and NORAD renewal. We hear less of that now but seem to be seeing more unilateral action along the border such as the introduction of UAV flights. Is that “continental debate still ongoing or is the U.S. proceeding with its own agenda?

It’s difficult for me to give you an honest appraisal because I don’t know. But there are many, many mutual interests involving our economy and our security and it seems to me it would be in America’s interest to do things jointly, not unilaterally. We saw that with the Smart Border Agreement that Minister Manley and I and our respective teams worked so hard to achieve: integrated border and enforcement teams, pooling resources and creating joint facilities at remote border locations, trying to harmonize commercial programs, putting immigration officers together – U.S. and Canadian – at airports overseas, creating compatible immigration databases. If we’re interested in a broader North American security package that benefits both the United States and Canada, we ought to view these things in that way and pursue them in a bilateral fashion.

To do this requires better data management and sharing. You’ve mentioned improved networks. Given your experience with the start up of a new department in Homeland Security, is there an effective way to break down barriers that exist between agencies and between countries when it comes to data sharing?

Breaking down those barriers intra country, even intra agency, is difficult to do. But it is work that needs to be done. There may be differences in the kind of information that the countries would be willing to share with one another for cultural or constitutional or legal reasons. However, America should not ask for more information from a foreign source about foreign citizens if it is unwilling to provide the same information on American citizens. The only way you ever come to an agreement with regard to protocol on information sharing is making sure that there is one standard, not two.

The success of DHS was anecdotal and incremental. Some communities were much more comfortable sharing within the agency, and latching up internally was a lot easier to do than externally with other cabinet agencies. But there is always an institutional resistance to change. And in many instances when you are dealing with the intelligence and law enforcement communities there is a certain bias based on a history not to share. So it’s like water dripping on a stone – you’ve just got to keep working it and working it. Sooner or later it happens.

Climate security has taken on greater prominence in recent years. Were issues like fresh water, food production, forced migration, etc, ever part of your debates on continental security?

Candidly, my interest in cooperating with the Canadian government on fresh water goes back to the days when I was governor of Pennsylvania – when we had a working group, the Great Lakes Council, to which we invited the leaders of the various provinces. It was focused on the ecosystem in the Great Lakes, the diversion of water from the Great Lakes, the mobility of the workforce. And now that American seems more willing politically to embrace the challenges associated with energy sources, cleaner energy, greenhouse gas emissions, again there a lot of these issues where we have mutual interests that can probably be advanced more quickly if we work towards mutual solutions.

Finally, what would you advise Canadian political leaders trying to make Washington more conscious of issues along its northern border?

Clearly, if you live along a border state, you understand in a very personal way, sometimes in a very economic way, the relations we have with the people, communities, businesses and governments to our north. I think candour is always very important. I remember having a conversation with President Bush after he had met with Prime Minister Chretien. He said, “Well, we didn’t agree but I sure appreciate his honesty and his candour as we try to work out this particular problem.” I think among close friends that kind of candour is essential to finding agreement. My friend John Manley and I had many, many discussions that began with divergent points of view, maybe not always in our minds but in our respective shops, but we were candid with each other, we worked toward a common solution and we ultimately got it.


An interview with Governor Tom Ridge