WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who oversaw the greatest overhaul of the federal government in half a century, announced yesterday that he is stepping down from his job, saying he had "accomplished a great deal in a short period of time" and made the country more secure.
Ridge's departure had been rumored for weeks. He is the seventh Cabinet member to resign since the election, as President Bush shakes up his administration in advance of a second term.
Among those being mentioned as Ridge's successor are White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend and Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas who is the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Ridge, 59, submitted his resignation to Bush after attending the president's regular morning threat briefing at the White House. He plans to remain in his job until Feb. 1, unless his successor is confirmed before then.
Ridge told an afternoon news conference that he wanted to devote more time to his family and expected to remain in Washington. According to associates, he is likely to accept either a top corporate job or a position in the Washington office of Blank Rome LLP, a Philadelphia law firm.
A Vietnam-era Army veteran who served in Congress and as Pennsylvania governor, Ridge has been mentioned as a possible contender for the 2008 Republican ticket. But while he received positive ratings in national public opinion polls for his work at the Homeland Security Department, Ridge is considered a long shot for the presidential nomination, in part because he favors abortion rights, putting him at odds with most of his party.
Yesterday, Ridge was self-effacing as he praised the men and women of his department who, he said, make "millions of decisions" every day at U.S. borders and entry points that "have as much to do with the security of the country as any individual decisions we might make here at headquarters."
He acknowledged that "change is always difficult" and defended his sometimes-halting efforts to meld almost two dozen agencies into one. "You can't expect to get it your way, the right way, the first time," he said.
Ridge called the government's often-ridiculed color-coded alert system a good one, although he added that the department was "always looking for ways" to improve it.
"As I've said to the president, there will always be more work for us to do in Homeland Security," Ridge said. He said he couldn't prove his department's actions had prevented planned terrorist attacks from taking place, but he was "fairly confident ... that we probably have."
Bush, in a statement released in Ottawa, Canada, where he is on a two-day state visit, praised his "longtime friend" for the "vital role" he has played in protecting the country "from a real and ongoing threat."
"America is safer and our government is better able to protect our people because of his hard work," Bush said.
Responding to a request from Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ridge resigned as governor midway through his second term to become the first White House homeland security adviser in October 2001. He became the first head of the new Department of Homeland Security, created by Congress after initial opposition from Bush, in January 2003.
Ridge managed to forge 180,000 employees from 22 agencies into a single department and keep it largely free of controversy. His tenure was marked by almost daily visits around the country, speaking to such diverse audiences as a banquet of shipping industry professionals and a small room full of blind veterans from World War II.
There have been six national "orange alerts" - when the government boosted security out of concern that an attack could be coming - under his leadership. But Ridge, knocking on the wooden lectern for luck yesterday, noted that there hasn't been a heightened alert for the entire nation in almost a year, since last Christmas season.
He said he was proud that his department was one arm of the government that "errs on the side of divulging more, not less information to the public."
Ridge enjoyed the limelight and frequently appeared on television to calm a jittery country with each terror warning. It was a role in which aides said he felt particularly comfortable. His popularity and exposure during times of crisis, though, frequently drew the ire of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who felt his Justice Department should be the center of the war on terrorism and the conduit of information.
The two men were widely known to have clashed over issues large and small. Most recently, when Ridge wanted to change the name of the department's newly created Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to Investigations and Criminal Enforcement, Ashcroft charged that the new name would sound too much like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which the Justice Department oversees. When Ashcroft prevailed, top homeland security officials said Ridge and others in his department were furious over what they considered a breach of Cabinet-level etiquette.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Ridge's longtime political adviser, Leslie Gromis Baker, said her former boss was keeping all of his options open. She said she didn't know whether he would consider a presidential run in 2008.
At his news conference, Ridge said that after 22 often-grueling years of public service, he wanted to "pay a little more attention" to his family.
"I am looking forward to going to my son's rugby games," he said.
Congress members from both parties generally complimented Ridge's work in overseeing the largest reorganization of the federal branch since the 1940s.
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said Ridge had made "significant contributions" to the nation's security.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, while calling Ridge "a fine public servant," said he "unfortunately was not given the leeway or resources to tighten up homeland security the way it should be done." The New York Democrat said he hoped Ridge's successor would be given the tools to "really do the job."