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The Byrne Report

Failed Safe

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LAST WEEK, TOM RIDGE resigned as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security after a three-year run commanding the biggest, clumsiest bureaucracy of the modern era. His main achievement, if he had one, was the invention of the color-coded threat advisory. As Ridge promised to vacate the premises by Feb.1, his reality-debased threat system was stuck at yellow--"elevated risk of terrorist attacks"--which is its usual position, since "severe" or "low" would be bad for business. Ridge's business, that is.

It is appropriate that yellow signifies fear and cowardice, because the mass marketing of unreasonable fears and the institutionalization of cowardice are Ridge's legacy. Under the leadership of Ridge (and President Bush), tens of millions of paranoid minds learned to unquestioningly accept the squandering of a trillion dollar budget surplus on military and homeland security boondoggles.

In August, Ridge filed his financial disclosure report with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. The security chief, it turns out, discovered how to make a buck or two for himself during the fog of terror. The report showed that, during 2003, the secretary held private investments worth as much as $815,000 in 45 corporations, many of them defense contractors, several of them contracted with his Department of Homeland Security, which spends $47 billion per year.

The only major paper to cover this story was the Congressional Quarterly, a pricey Capitol Hill newspaper. According to analysis by the Quarterly, Ridge held investments in:

* Microsoft, which has a $90 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security for computers and software;

* General Electric, contracted with the department to provide walk-through explosives detectors;

* Sprint, which recently completed a networking contract for the department;

* Raytheon, subcontractor on a $10 billion visa program contract with the department;

* and Oracle, which has an entire homeland security contracting division.

Additionally, Ridge had as much as $45,000 tied up with three pharmaceutical companies--Baxter International, Merck and Pfizer--all of which have a stake in smallpox vaccine development. He reported receiving as much as $110,000 in dividend cash from his investments in an array of military and homeland security contractors.

While operating as a pro-war Bush administration figure, Ridge privately invested in ExxonMobil ($565 million in defense contracts in 2002), General Electric ($1.6 billion) and Raytheon ($7 billion). As head of homeland security, Ridge had a vested financial interest in maintaining at least the illusion of the existence of a permanent terrorist threat to the homeland as the Bush administration embarked on its program of aggressive war and covert violence in the Third World.

A week before he resigned, his department came under attack from an unexpected quarter: the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whose well-connected ideologues had advised Bush to throw federal money into war as a method of reducing social spending and the size of government. In the institute's recent report titled "What Does Homeland Security Spending Buy?" AEI research fellow Veronique de Rugy complains that "the Bush administration has followed a remarkably irresponsible course by requesting . . . spending increases . . . in the name of security. . . . [H]omeland security spending is being used for grants to state and local governments, many of which appear to be applied to questionable purposes . . . [S]pending decisions are made on a political basis rather than on a sound cost-benefit analysis."

De Rugy further argues that homeland-security spending stymies economic growth. She is particularly outraged that the "DHS handed out about $153 million for programs offering food and shelter for the poor [in 2004]." The AEI evidently prefers to create welfare-ending deficits by deploying spies and troops abroad.

Du Rugy reserves her greatest wrath for Ridge's Transportation Security Administration, which spends $5.3 billion per year on an air-passenger screening operation that federal auditors, and most expert observers, say does not work. (She points out, correctly, that reinforcing cockpit doors is the most effective deterrent to airplane hijackers.)

Right-wing naif de Rugy appears to be genuinely shocked that her neocon friends in the White House are more concerned about preserving political capital than swinging the budget ax. Despite decades of conservative rhetoric decrying government waste, the Reagan, Bush and Bush administrations have shown that, once in power, right-wing ideologues could care less about reducing the size of their governments.

If de Rugy truly wants to understand why Ridge--cunning, if not bright--wasted so much of his budget on such failed programs as federalized passenger screening, she need look no further than the $15,000 or so that the secretary invested in Unisys, which enjoys a $1 billion contract to manage information technology for the Transportation Security Administration.

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From the December 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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