Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security Secretary, Headlines Espionage Expert Panel

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The National Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.,  during the 2010 SALT film junket, hosted a panel of espionage experts featuring Director of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former U.S. Intelligence officer and Middle East Counterterrorism Expert, Melissa Mahle, Kirk Whitworth, Director of Communications and Analysis under the Bush Administration and Operative and former KGB General Oleg Kalugin.

After a brief introduction Spy Museum Executive Director Peter Earnest opened the Q & A session to the floor and the big boys were hot on the panel engaging them in National Security questions and zeroing in, as the session ended, on aspects of the filming of "SALT" and the elements of fact verses a fiction and how that played into plot and character development.

Having the opportunity to participate in a hard news security press conference with no boundaries and a panel of experts willing to answer most questions, and offering tantalizing tidbits and tales from the cold war crypt it seemed like the perfect opportunity to discuss a variety of subjects including Oliver Stone’s summer film, "South of the Border," America’s Post-911 safety and the possibility of domestic terror cells replacing international terror cells as the new world threat.

 

Janet Walker:  You mentioned, both of you Secretary Ridge and Mr. Whitworth, September 11th  and how we established the Department of Homeland Security Office (DHS).  Are we safer today, after September 11th then we were before? And if we are, you just mentioned we live in a free society; we have eleven sleeper spies arrested; three bomb attempts in Times Square (NY) repeated problems, domestic home cells and terror threats everywhere. Are we safer today then we were before September 11th?

 

Secretary Tom Ridge: I’m going to say, absolutely we are. But the reality is we have a different threat. We not only have a traditional threat from governments opposed to us just think back to the years of the cold war when we had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at us and we had thousands nuclear missiles pointed at someone else and the basic strategy was called  “mutual assured destruction.” If you pushed the button; we pushed the button so neither one of us better push the button.

 

It was a norm that we accepted as part of living in the 20st century. And yet once we accepted it and then trusted our leaders to deal with that reality we went ahead and built the most diversified strongest economy, military, the civil rights movement, technological revolution but there was a real threat and I think the challenge of the 21st century we say to ourselves, particularly in an open society, ‘We’re not going to live in fear. We live in Freedom.’ And we’ve got professionals doing everything they can everyday to make sure our freedom is secure.

 

Our two challenges are: Be aware of your surroundings be aware of that norm, Be aware of that new reality; ie: terrorism is going to be part of the 21st century war on this country and elsewhere but don’t surrender to fear. It’s still America and we’re not going to let these terrorist and the possibility of a potential action intimidate us or change us. And the big challenge is our society is balancing our desire to be secure with our desire to be free.  That will be a challenge for this and for all administrations of the 21st century.

 

The panel ended with those comments and fortunately they agreed to limited one:one interviews.

 

Oliver Stone, a master of controversy and conspiracy theorist, was a topic due to his summer release of the controversial film "South of the Border" and his support of Hugo Chavez, a spoken “concern” for the U.S. government for many administrations. Having recently participated in the "South of the Border" Press Day and hearing directly from the source and in reality knowing the power of the media to stop, slow, stall, hype, hinder or hurt, any story depending on the persuasive power that control the press, cable and network news channels it seemed like a natural progression to ask Secretary Ridge his opinion on the controversial film from the vantage point of his authority as Homeland Security Director.

 

Janet Walker: You had mentioned Venezuela, I recently interviewed Oliver Stone regarding his film [South of the Border] and he talked about how Hugo Chavez received a ‘Bum rap’  but you mentioned Venezuela as a potential “hotbed” let’s say of terrorist idealism. What do you think?

 

Secretary Ridge: I’ve not seen the movie. I’m not going to comment. Oliver Stone has his own interpretation of history which he’s entitled to according to the First Amendment. He [Stone] is entitled to say what he wants. But I think some of his overt public statements about America and about his rallying to the defense and aligning himself with some known enemies of America [that questions his loyalty to America]. Don’t speak to a neighbor in South America that is really interested in establishing a unpopular relationship.   He [Chavez] is slowly, I think, coming under the control and reigns of authority and power. I’ve not met the man and that’s not to say that he runs a very repressive regime but I think if he continues to control he will ultimately become a despot.

 Janet Walker: Thank you Secretary Ridge.

Secretary Ridge: You’re welcome.

 

Continuing with Bush Administration Communications Director Kirk Whitworth.

 

Janet Walker: What was your role?

Kirk Whitworth: My role was to talk to the media when intelligence came out and we needed to let people know or when intelligence was leaked to the media that we didn’t want them to have we had to deal with it. My job was to talk about Homeland Security Intelligence, the threat against the United States and protective measures. I dealt with Cyber Security, Critical Infrastructure Protection and then Crisis Communications in response to those areas.

 

Janet Walker: Do you feel that there is an increase in Domestic Terror cells, citizens, American citizens, disgruntled, acting out in what would be considered international terrorist activity ways?

 

Kirk Whitworth: An increase, that’s a good question. To some degree, there is. Overseas we have dealt, I think, very well with many of the threats. Al Qaeda has been in many ways dismantled, and so though it remains dangerous it’s not the threat it was. Al Qaeda’s on the run. The policies of the Bush Administration were really carried on by the Obama Administration and have really been effective at minimizing the threat of their ability to coordinate operations such as 9/11.

 

From that prospective, I think that’s what Secretary Ridge was talking about the big threat the massive economy crippling, loss of many, many lives, that threat has been significantly diminished; not gone, it’s diminished as long as people don’t have access to nuclear warheads. It only takes a few. We have protective measures to protect us from getting that here [a terror strike against the US] we know of ways they could do it and we hope they don’t. I mean it’s our jobs to be one step ahead of them to think of what protective measures we can take to cut them off. I think largely we’ve done that. I’m assuming those have been carried on.

 

Domestically, the biggest threat, what we know of, that the sleeper cells are one thing in terms of Islamic terror an asymmetric threat, there is no longer mutually assured destruction that won’t stop anyone because the goal of a jihadist is mutually assured destruction. That’s the only way they get to Heaven from a theological perspective even, that’s their religion, that’s part of their goal that’s the only way they can get there, without question, is by dying in jihad. 

 

When you have someone who is motivated like that mutually assured destruction won’t stop them. The question, the real problem, even though I don’t think it is for major operations, where you’re going to take down the Twin Towers again, you could still hurt people and you could create a sense of panic people by a few known rules.

 

Use people who are radicalized they’re brought up as moderate Muslims but they listen to a preacher on the internet. The problem that I’m concerned about now, is that the current, [this is a political statement] it’s not just the current administration, because there have always been voices within each administration, you want to be very careful, and it’s important, be careful not to look like we’re attacking a religion because the religion is unpopular.

 

We’re not trying to kill all Muslims, but it’s such a significant strain of genocide, some would say, the truest line that lasts that naturally lends itself that way and the questions becomes how do you prevent radicalization of just a kid watching videos on the internet who may be angry about something he hears happened overseas, how do you prevent him from becoming trigger happy?

 

We have example after example where that happened. Usually even when the folks are trained operatives, they’re bumbling idiots. And they talk a big game and they try and when they get some training they screw up an operation like the Underwear Bomber [Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabr].

 

We have to ask, “Have there been people radicalized in prison?” We talk about Prislam, a very violent form of Islam that is very much about power and it blends with some of the Black Panther thinking/Black Power Movement, Nation of Islam, for example, which is very different a Black Power movement.

 

So the question is “Are we safer today?” Absolutely.  Am I? I don’t think 9/11 can happen again as long as we remain vigilant. The danger is that people forget about the war and they forget we will always be at war against Islamic extremism. That’s not going away. Osama Bin Laden we know made that clear. Osama Bin Laden had a five hundred year plan. This isn’t about him. The religious and theological goal of Islam is to bow the knee to Allah. This is about Islam taking over the world.

 

Janet Walker: Thank you Director Whitworth.

Director Whitworth: You’re welcome.

 

241, 168, 2,985: These are the numbers of Americans killed in terror attacks at home and abroad in Beirut, Oklahoma City and New York City. From catastrophic attacks to technological security breaches, crazed private citizens and religious fanatics: Terrorism is a cancer that rots the fabric of America with radical extremists believing their deity will honor the acts of violence against America and its citizens. 

"SALT," the espionage thriller from Sony Entertainment and Columbia Pictures, starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and directed by Phillip Noyce. Produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, "SALT" has entertianed the world with an insider's look at the possibilities of slepper spies infiltrating the highest level of government. The explosive contemporary thrill ride pitted Jolie as Evelyn Salt against the governments most highly trained agents. The security panel discussion was courtesy of SONY Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures during the 2010 "SALT" junket in Washington, D.C. 

 

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