Ridge: America Better Prepared Than Ever
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 29, 2003 While there are no guarantees that America can prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said the "American people are more secure and better prepared today than ever before."
"I can say that because we are certainly more aware of the threat of terrorism and we are certainly more vigilant about confronting it," he said.
Ridge's remarks were made during the Homeland Security Department Conference held July 28 in Arlington, Va. He also announced measures to share information among government agencies and a new system to keep track of visitors entering the United States illegally.
He said the president's initiative to create the Terrorist Threat Integration Center will give analysts access to sensitive information generated by agencies all across the government. This will "assure that critical intelligence will be shared with the appropriate individuals at both the state and local level," Ridge noted.
He said this would involve a communication system among multilayered government tiers down to local levels and across the law enforcement community and the private sector. "Again, it will require teamwork. It will require partnership. It will require communication," he emphasized.
In addition, Ridge said his department is increasing the number of inspectors and Border Patrol agents, and equipping agents with state-of-the-art technology.
He said the department is in the process of implementing the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology system.
Ridge said the system, called US VISIT, will be under way at selected locations by the end of the year. It is designed to make entering the U.S. easier for legitimate tourists, students and business travelers, while making it more difficult, by implementing biometrically authenticated documents, to enter the U.S. illegally.
"This is essentially a virtual border that will use biometrics to confirm the identity and status of all travelers both to and from the United States. We're obliged by the end of this year to be able to confirm the identity of individuals who come into this country using our seaports or airports," he said.
Visitors coming into the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2004, will have to submit fingerprints that will allow the department to monitor who's in the country, he said.
"Then we have a basis of information to make sure that once their visa has expired or once their authorized time within the country has expired, then they leave," he explained. "And then we'll have a database of those who have complied with the law and those who haven't, and then we can devote the resources to go out and apprehend those who haven't."
Ridge pointed out that in the first six months of the department's existence, it has made great progress to reach a high standard of readiness and protection.
"We moved rapidly to map and protect our critical infrastructure, such as power plants and financial systems, secure our borders from terrorists and suspicious cargo, and prevent and prepare for attacks involving weapons of mass destruction," he said.
"Through our 'Ready' campaign, we have also empowered individual citizens and families in their own protection. Every single day we collect more intelligence, share more information, inspect more baggage and passengers and containers, guard more territory and equip and train more first responders," he added.
Although he emphasized the work that the Homeland Security Department is doing to prepare and plan against terrorist acts is important, he added that "the role of localities in prevention is absolutely critical as well."
"We depend on citizens to be vigilant. We depend on state and local governments to assess critical infrastructure vulnerabilities and work with us to address them. We depend on businesses to take the necessary steps to protect their facilities. And we depend on thousands of trained personnel to work with cities across the country to secure our ports, to secure our borders, secure our transportation systems."
Ridge said that DHS has developed "vital security partnerships" to assist localities with those obligations and that his department will share information and resources "however and wherever we can."
Ridge said that DHS has allocated about $4 billion for equipment, training and other resources for first responders such as police, fire and emergency services personnel at the state and local areas.
The money will also provide grants for mass transit, port security and emergency operations. He said that an additional $3.5 billion will be made available later this year.
"So, by the end of this year, there will be about $7.5 billion available to our partners in the state and local government," he said.