Ridge sees technology helping boost homeland security

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge Tuesday said the administration’s layered security strategy, which combines new technologies with a restructured homeland security organization and streamlined processes, has made the nation significantly more secure than at any other time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We’ve made significant progress toward shoring up the necessary layers of homeland security that have helped make America safer,” said Ridge, speaking today at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

With just nine days to go until the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and only eight months into the life of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Ridge credited the intelligence community’s Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the agency’s Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection division with helping to improve threat analysis and information sharing.

Ridge also praised his agency’s efforts to deploy “Smart Border” technologies and establish cooperative agreements with Mexico and Canada. “By the end of the year, we will have launched US-VISIT, which essentially creates a virtual border,” said Ridge. “We will use biometrics to confirm the identity and status of travelers, both to and from the United States.”

The $380 million US-VISIT program, also known as the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, is an effort to create an automated entry/exit system capable of expediting the arrival of legitimate travelers while making it more difficult for terrorists or criminals to cross U.S. borders.

Ridge also addressed recent findings by the General Accounting Office that information sharing between the federal government and state and local officials remains problematic. The department’s’ efforts to keep state and local intelligence up to date “hasn’t always been effectively possible because of a lack of secure telephone and videoconferencing equipment at the state level and too few state officials with the appropriate security clearances,” he said.

As a result, the DHS has launched what Ridge called the Homeland Security Strategic Communications Resources Initiative – also known as the Secure Initiative. “Already under this new effort, we have provided all 50 states, as well as two territories and the District of Columbia, with the capability to communicate over secure phones and videoconferencing equipment,” said Ridge.

But much more needs to be done on research and development, he said, urging Congress to pass the Bush administration’s fiscal 2004 budget. That proposed budget provides US$41.3 billion for domestic efforts against terrorism, including $350 million for infrastructure developments and technology architecture, as well as $800 million to set up a science and technology clearinghouse to collect and analyze private sector technology products and research.

“These new technologies offer the promise of assessment and detection capabilities of virtually every possible kind,” said Ridge. “On the horizon, for example, are sensors that can detect whether an individual has been handling radioactive materials, or has been immunized against or exposed to dangerous pathogens or chemicals – potential indicators of terrorist activity,” he said.

“In that same spirit, we’ve initiated development of smoke alarm-like devices that can be placed in facilities, on lampposts, at inspection stations, to detect any release of suspicious pathogens or chemical agents. And when used inside facilities, the sensors will be able to link with the air-handling system, to automatically and optimally redirect air flows to contain any possible threat,” Ridge said.