Feel safer yet? Tom Ridge, the harried director of the Office of Homeland Security, is betting that more Americans will answer in the affirmative after July 1. That's Ridge's deadline for giving President Bush a draft document that outlines something critics claim is long overdue -- a comprehensive national strategy to combat terrorism within America's borders (See BW Online, 5/31/02, "America's Biggest Job"). On May 28, Ridge met with BusinessWeek Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and White House Correspondent Richard S. Dunham and provided some clues to his thinking. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: In the absence of federal guidelines, business has been pretty much moving ahead on its own to tighten security. Your assessment?
A: There are far more people working on homeland security from the prevention and deterrence side than most people realize.... The private sector has been very much on board.... We've got to talk about prevention, prevention, prevention. We have eight industry-wide [information-sharing] advisory committees set up [to discuss critical infrastructure]. [And] we're trying to get a common definition of what critical infrastructure is.
Q: What would it cost to mount a sustained homeland-security drive?
A: I've seen estimates of $75 billion [up to] $100 billion as the sum the private sector [now] absorbs. We have also seen estimates that [new security] add-ons could be $25 billion to $50 billion more, but it's very difficult to estimate. I'll leave that to the [economic] analysts.
Q: Who is going to pay for all this?
A: By and large, it'll be borne by the consumer. A substantial portion of the cost will also be absorbed by government.... And it's a price most Americans are willing to pay. We're trying to adopt a risk-management approach [to future spending]. It's a little bit of an art, a little bit of a science. All of these things come into play when we decide how to spend our dollars.
Q: Will conservative ideology lead the Administration to eschew mandatory security directives? Some critics fear that your disdain for Big Government will trump the need for quick and effective security measures.
A: We won't [rule out actions] for certain parts of the economy. Right now, we're assessing needs.... We haven't foreclosed that option.
Q: So will there be some federal security standards in your new national strategy?
A: We will establish some standards of conduct.... We need closer coordination with the private sector than we've ever had before. But...the "miracle of the marketplace" won't necessarily solve all these problems.
Q: What about federal security subsidies, such as tax credits, joint research projects, and the like?
A: It would have to be a limited tool, but it is certainly an approach that we would consider as part of the national strategy as we take a look at long-term needs, particularly when it comes to R&D. It's only in the discussion stages.
Q: Can we assume you would oppose ideas such as a joint industry-government security mobilization board? Wouldn't such a panel, modeled on WW II experience, cut through a lot of red tape?
A: Informal working groups can basically do the same thing. The response of the private sector to our [OHS] security workshops has been double what we anticipated. Everybody wants to be engaged.
Q: Great, but don't you worry that the price of all of this voluntary schmoozing is some inevitable delay on the compliance front?
A: There is a sense of urgency in the government and in the private sector. It's one reason that states, local communities, and companies are moving ahead on their own.