At first, the name seemed off. To some, it was even un-American. “It has a vaguely Teutonic ring,” Peggy Noonan complained. “Ve must help ze Führer protect ze Homeland!” But when President Bush, in a speech to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, announced that Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge would helm the newly created Office of Homeland Security, both sides of the aisle rose in spontaneous applause. Ridge, who was sitting in the chamber’s balcony with Laura Bush and Tony Blair, clasped his hands and soberly acknowledged their cheers.
The Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, which in January 2003 became an actual Cabinet department, was intended, as Bush explained that night, to “safeguard our country against terrorism.” In the process, it would necessitate the largest government reorganization since World War II, as once-distinct agencies (the Coast Guard; the Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) joined brand new ones (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) under one giant bureaucratic roof. By the time the new department was up and running, it had become the government’s third largest, with almost 170,000 employees and a nearly $40 billion annual budget.
The problems began with the color-coded threat system, which Ridge hoped would create “a national framework and a common vocabulary” but instead, with its constant toggling between yellow and orange, came to resemble a kind of national mood lamp. Meanwhile, the intrusive and frequently incompetent Transportation Security Administration screeners at the airports seemed better equipped for making Grandma miss her flight than stopping an actual terrorist. When Ridge took to the airwaves in early 2003 to urge Americans to buy duct tape in order to be prepared for a chemical attack, it seemed like Homeland Security might be some sort of elaborate prank.
It wasn’t all farce. In 2004, in the days before the presidential election and with President Bush in a tight race with John Kerry, Ridge was pressured by top Bush officials to raise the national threat level in response to a threatening videotape from Osama bin Laden. “There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” Ridge later recalled in his 2009 memoir. “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ ” Not long after Bush’s reelection, Ridge resigned.
Then the revolving door began. Typically, officials are prohibited from lobbying their former government departments for one year after their departure, but thanks to a ruling by the Office of Government Ethics—a ruling sought by Homeland Security—DHS had been split into seven divisions, so that the one-year lobbying ban applied only to the particular division in which the official had worked. A number of Ridge’s former aides became homeland-security lobbyists, representing corporations like Tyco, which was trying to sell wireless communications to the government’s emergency responders. Ridge started Ridge Global, a security consulting firm, and began taking seats on the boards of high-tech and defense firms that were seeking homeland-security contracts from the government. Home Depot, perhaps out of gratitude for the increase in duct-tape sales, made Ridge a director. Michael Chertoff, Ridge’s Homeland Security successor, co-founded the Chertoff Group soon after he left the job in 2009, taking at least eleven former top DHS officials with him. One of his clients was Rapiscan, which makes body-scanners for airport security. Under Chertoff, Homeland Security had made the government’s first purchases of the machine, and now that he was out of government, he sought to persuade Homeland Security to up its orders. After the unsuccessful underwear bombing in December 2009, Chertoff began cranking out op-eds and hitting the television shows to argue for the full-body-scanning systems. He was typically identified as a former Homeland Security secretary rather than a Rapiscan flack. In the end, the TSA ordered $173 million worth of the new machines from Rapiscan.
The Terror Toggle
⚠️ March 12, 2002: President Bush signs Presidential Directive Three, creating the Homeland Security Advisory System.
🔶 September 10, 2002: A “senior Al Qaeda operative” indicates possible attacks on the first anniversary of 9/11.
⚠️ September 24, 2002: The 9/11 anniversary passes without incident.
🔶 February 7, 2003: Reports suggest Al Qaeda leaders are plotting attacks on apartment buildings, hotels, and other “soft” targets in the U.S.
⚠️ February 27, 2003: Counterterrorism operations “address specific aspects of the threat situation.”
🔶 May 20, 2003: Bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco kill Westerners.
⚠️ May 30, 2003: Memorial Day passes without incident.
🔶 December 21, 2003: Increased chatter and credible sources point to an attack around or after the end-of-year holidays.
⚠️ January 9, 2004: Holidays pass without incident.
🔶 July 7, 2005: London rush-hour bombings on subways and a double-decker bus.
🔶 August 10, 2006: British authorities foil plot to use liquid explosives to blow up multiple airplanes bound for the United States.
🔶 August 13, 2006: Security measures taken. Ban on liquids and gels remains.
◻️ May 5, 2011: Obama administration ditches color-coded threat system.