Speaking at the National Press Club about his duties as the nation's security chief, Ridge seemed receptive to the notion of a national ID system for airline travelers. Along with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Ridge is talking with airline officials about such a plan, he said. "It makes some sense to me," Ridge said. "I think Americans would participate in some kind of identification system as a convenience, and we have begun those discussions with the aviation industry."
Though Ridge did not give any details, he compared the proposal to programs that airlines established to allow certain passengers to join clubs where they can wait for flights at various airports. Similarly, consumers might be willing to pay extra for a biometrics-based "smart card" that would ease their ability to travel under tight security, he said.
But Ridge cautioned that such a system might have to be "voluntary." He said he would meet next week with airline industry representatives and expects the issue to resurface then.
Ridge defended President Bush's proposed $38 billion budget request for homeland security, arguing that it is "a good start, but it's just a start" in the ongoing war on terrorism.
Specifically, the Bush administration's fiscal 2003 budget calls for $313 million to revamp U.S. border security. "We need to take a look at the border in a 21st-century way," Ridge said. "What are our goals? Do we need to consolidate agencies and do we need to consolidate technologies." "There has been quite a bit of discussions about borders. We are open and welcoming and trusting ...," he said. "We are a nation of immigrants." But he added that the government needs a better system of tracking its "guests," and he touted the Bush proposal for funding to improve overall information technology in the government.
"Over 300 million non-citizens move in and out of our borders every year," Ridge said. "We think in the 21st century, once the time has expired, ... we think it's very appropriate that as guests, they leave as they said they were going to leave."
A key to achieving that goal is new technologies, and Ridge praised the technology community and said it can look at the drive to homeland security as an "opportunity for new markets." The government will benefit from their "ingenuity," which he said has "driven this economy for the past decade."
Ridge also defended Bush's decision not to give the homeland security director more budgetary authority. "I've got all the power and authority I need, " he said, noting the budget request as evidence that the president has made the issue his top priority.
"I am very comfortable with the role [Bush] has given me," he said.