Nevada City, Calif., a former gold rush camp in the Sierra foothills that’s a frequent day trip destination for residents of Reno and Sacramento, is well-equipped to fight off al-Qaeda. It has received at least $495,187 in federal homeland security funds.
Owyhee didn’t do quite that well. The area, near the Idaho/Nevada border in northern Elko County, is near the region recently identified by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science as one of the three most remote and untouched by humans regions in the nation (see “Light footprint,” page 13). The Shoshone Paiute Fire Department in Owyhee only received $225,000 in homeland security funds, but then they’re probably not expecting a visit from Osama any time soon.
These are just two of the thousands of Homeland Security grants that have flooded over localities, accompanied by a healthy dose of publicity for both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and for the local members of Congress.
The horror stories about homeland security welfare are starting to pile up.
Hoover, Ala., has so much Homeland Security money that it has started its own Department of Homeland Security.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is paying $1.1 million to insert a disaster preparedness handbook into telephone directories even though the same information is freely available elsewhere, including online.
Alaska at one point had so much Homeland Security money that it invited proposals for how to spend it.
Colchester, Vt., population 16,000, used federal Homeland Security funds to purchase equipment for boring through collapsed skyscrapers.
In the months after Sept. 11, there was awareness by members of Congress that the expected rise in spending for protection of the U.S. homeland could turn into a pork-barrel competition if protections were not built in. But the process of pork quickly took over and “risk-based” funding never had a chance.
What makes homeland security funding different from other government programs is that it enjoys massive political protection. To the public, the term homeland security doesn’t mean protection from natural disasters, it means protection from terrorism.
“The Department of Homeland Security had one purpose and one purpose only, to stop terrorism,” said Nevada homeland security adviser Jerry Bussell on April 24, 2003. (Interviews with people at random at Reno’s main post office bore this out—without exception, every one of 30 people interviewed associated homeland security with terrorism.)
Money spent to protect the public from terrorism pretty much gets a free ride through Congress, and when it arrives in communities it is rarely questioned—most news reports merely report the amount of funding received and the use to which it is being put and doesn’t scrutinize need. Because of the patriotic sentiment that drives this kind of funding, the burden on members of Congress not to abuse the public’s trust is even greater than normal.
While the Bush administration and members of Congress said the creation of the Department of Homeland Security would concentrate resources, in fact it has done no such thing—agencies all over the administrative map, from agriculture to social security, allocate homeland security funds. The Department of Health and Human Services administers a huge chunk.
“It appears that the only real question asked then was ‘in’ or ‘out',” says a report by the American Enterprise Institute about the way Congress decided to put items outside the Homeland Security budget, often in budgets of agencies with histories of mismanagement.
Need was quickly eliminated as a consideration—every state would get a certain amount of money, needed or not.
“We recommend significant changes in the government,” the September 11 Commission said. “[F]ederal homeland security assistance should not remain a program for general revenue sharing. It should supplement state and local resources based on the risks or vulnerabilities that merit additional support. [Italics added.] Congress should not use this money as a pork barrel.” But the commission waited until its final report to sound this warning, long after homeland security pork had become standard operating procedure.
Congress took some steps to reform itself, such as designating seven high-risk cities and excluding others from that category. But every step it took was soon eroded. The seven cities became 50, each qualifying for more grants. An initial ban on legislative earmarking of funds for favored projects was later repealed by Congress.
The most recent opportunity for Congress to take steps to reform itself came on July 14, and it showed both Congress and journalism at their worst.
The homeland security budget provided for 70 percent of the funding to go to high-risk areas. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced an amendment to raise that to 87 percent. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and other small-state representatives pushed to lower the percentage to 60. The Senate approved the Collins amendment.
“The Senate voted, disgracefully, to shift homeland security money from high-risk areas to low-risk ones,” commented the New York Times. The Times, at least, noticed. The Washington Post that day reported on a Senate floor spat in which Democratic leader Harry Reid tried to lift the security clearance of anyone who outed a U.S. intelligence agent (a slap at Bush aide Karl Rove) and Republican leader Bill Frist tried to lift Reid’s clearance. The term “homeland security” was not mentioned the next day on Washington Week in Review. So it went through most of journalism. Senators knew their votes were safe from most public attention. (On the same day, the Senate also voted down an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada that would have funded an additional 1,000 border patrol agents.)
Members of Congress often seem like cats’ paws of what the American Enterprise Institute describes as “'homeland security’ pressure groups—e.g. first responders, state officials and/or specific industries like the airline industry [who] may have an incentive to lobby lawmakers to try to grab a bigger share of the funding allocated.”
Nor has the sheer amount of money being sent out been questioned by most newsrooms. Does Las Vegas really need $1.5 million to train, not counterterrorist workers, but to train the trainers of counterterrorist workers? Maybe, but it would be nice if the determination was subject to some rigorous examination.
The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report that said, “The United States could spend the entire gross domestic product and still be unprepared, or wisely spend a limited amount and end up sufficiently prepared.”
National Review magazine dryly observed, “Early signs are that Congress is inclined toward the first option.” That’s as close as most journalists have come to questioning the amount being spent on homeland security.
The flow of money to low-risk areas like Nevada City and Owyhee has meant that some high-risk areas have been shorted—New York City, for instance. It may seem astonishing that New York, whose World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists in 1993 and 2001, must make a case that it is a high-risk area, but the problem has become so acute that it is a major issue in the New York mayor’s race.
“We give lump sums to states and basically say, ‘Spend it however you like,'” says U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, one of the candidates for mayor. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. California, for instance, passed $5,000 on to every county for no particular reason.
Among the recommendations of the September 11 Commission was, “Base federal funding for emergency preparedness solely on risks and vulnerabilities, putting New York City and Washington, D.C., at the top of the current list. [Italics added.] Such assistance should not remain a program for general revenue sharing or pork-barrel spending.” American Samoa has received 10 times more funding per capita than New York.
In one of his last articles, the late journalist Jack Newfield wrote about how homeland security funding for New York City has been repeatedly slashed: “Or consider the Bush administration’s treatment of first responders. It has recently eliminated its only program providing funds for upgrading police and fire department radio communications. On 9/11, the FDNY’s radios did not function. Warnings over police radios to evacuate the towers immediately were not received by the firefighters trying to rescue trapped office workers. On that one day, 343 New York City firefighters died, and about 120 of these deaths have been attributed to the futile radio transmissions.”
The September 11 Commission found that the “inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, crash sites.”
Newfield reported that New York has only one dedicated toxic-materials unit in the entire city while firefighters in “Zanesville, Ohio, population 25,600, has federally funded thermal-imaging technology to find victims in dense smoke and a test kit for lethal nerve gases.”
Nor is it only New York. Many terrorism experts say coastal states generally are underprotected.
Newfield, a renowned investigative reporter for alternative publications and biographer of Robert Kennedy, is one of the few liberals who have scrutinized the two ways the old pork-barrel politics have taken over homeland security funding. Most of it has been done by conservatives. The Heritage Foundation, the Unification Church’s Washington Times newspaper, National Review magazine, U.S. Sen. John McCain, Citizens Against Government Waste, U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, the American Enterprise Institute, and other conservatives or conservative entities have led the charge. Liberals, except for members of Congress representing high-risk states, have been largely silent on the issue.
Nevada officials, who have long argued that Nevada’s poor standings in crime rankings are wrong because they include tourists, have turned on a dime when it comes to homeland security funding and demanded that tourists be included in risk assessments.
“When you look at who the terrorists are, they are not just looking for any target,” Nevada homeland security adviser Giles Vanderhoof said. “It’s an opinion of mine that we present an image that would be attractive to them because of the gaming and entertainment we have in Nevada.”
“It is true literally anything could happen anywhere at any time,” said U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. “It is equally true we do not have an infinite amount of money. We’ve got to prioritize.”
Nevertheless, Cox (who has since been given a federal appointment) agreed to a request by U.S. Rep. Jon Porter of Nevada to include language in a bill he was sponsoring. The measure as originally written would have lowered state minimum-funding levels and apportion more funding according to risk. Cox, at Porter’s suggestion, included language that would weight the formula for tourism. And in July, the Senate approved an amendment supported by Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign to do the same thing—in spite of the fact that Las Vegas has already received at least $8,456,728 from the Urban Area Security Initiative, a fund that provides extra resources for areas with greater security needs.
When the Senate approved the tourist formula, Ensign put out a statement: “States like Nevada with smaller populations must constantly fight for equal treatment when it comes to funding.”
Well, not all that constantly. It is, in fact, the small states that are “more equal,” as George Orwell put it in Animal Farm. They are usually less likely terror targets but have done well at anti-terror funding, and the large states have had to fight constantly for funding. The state that is at the top of the per-capita-funding list is Wyoming, home of the vice president of the United States. Number two is Alaska, home of Senate Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens. When FEMA gives Nevada a quarter-million dollars to organize something called “Citizen Corps,” it may mean that an area of real risk is being neglected.
And sometimes it’s hard to understand why some spending is coming from homeland security funds at all. Last December, U.S. Rep. James Gibbons announced that Nevada was receiving $979,000 in homeland security money to pay for non-disaster related homeless needs—"supplementing existing food, shelter, rent, mortgage and utility assistance programs.” All worthy purposes, but what have they to do with homeland security?
There is no arguing that there are legitimate homeland security needs, even in smaller states. That is often where icons like Mount Rushmore are found, and Nevada is clearly in that category. The most important potential terrorist target in the state, Hoover Dam, is both an icon and a public utility. If something were to happen to it, the catastrophe would be unimaginable. The water held back by the dam suddenly turned loose into the Colorado would hit downstream communities like a sledgehammer. Several states would lose electricity.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the dam has received improved perimeter security: boom lines to keep anyone from approaching the dam by the river, new access doors, blast resistant protection, new highway approaches, traffic checkpoints, a new security system and cameras, and boat patrols. An inquiry into the safety of federal buildings and national icons by the General Accounting Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, found that safety issues at the dam had been addressed. It was the kind of performance for which homeland security should be, but often is not, known.
Sometimes even needed homeland security projects are not planned well. Sen. Reid began pushing in 2002 for a counterterrorism training center in Nevada. No one doubted the need, but the question—raised by the Christian Science Monitor and others—was whether site selection was best done by senators or by terrorism experts. There was no unified or strategic planning for such centers, just senators (Reid was one of many) trying to get such centers for their states.
“Everybody’s trying to do their share—and going about it in their own way,” Chicago hazardous materials expert John Eversole told the Monitor. “But the most difficult thing is getting a centralized, organized plan.”
The consequences of the failure of news organization to scrutinize homeland security spending can be seen in the camera fiasco at the University of Nevada, Reno.
When the funding for the camera system was allocated, it got little attention. If it was reported at all, it was just a small item reporting the amount and the purpose. No one asked why dozens of surveillance cameras paid for by anti-terrorism money were needed on a campus with little defense work. No one asked which came first—a need by the university for cameras, or the availability of money for cameras followed by a request from the university.
In December, a major scandal unfolded on the campus when the Reno Gazette Journal’s Frank Mullen broke a story about alleged animal abuse. A whistleblower named Hussein Hussein played a role in the story, and so did cameras in the hallway outside his office. It was the first most of the public had heard of surveillance cameras on campus. (There were two cameras at different points in the hallway, one police camera and one homeland-security camera.)
The public had no context for judging what the cameras were doing on campus, or why they were there. Moreover, even since the scandal, there has been little news coverage examining whether the campus needs the cameras and whether the funding was well spent.
To the lassitude of the press can be added the deft public relations of Homeland Security administrators. In many ways, the new cabinet department resembles the Pentagon, as U.S. Sen. William Fulbright once described it. It’s a massive propaganda machine, trumpeting its grants in both national and local media and then building on that publicity to get more money for more grants.
The Department Web site provides templates for press releases that can be used by the locals to tout their grants, and of course they contain quotes from Department officials in Washington: “City, State – The XXX has received a grant of $XXX from the 2005 Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security…'We recognize the importance of the Fire Act Grants to our nation’s fire departments and we will continue to work closely with the fire service community to meet their needs,’ said Matt A Mayer, Acting Executive Director of [the] Office for Domestic Preparedness.'”
According to Google, that Matt Mayer quote has appeared in at least 181 places around the nation (four in Nevada), including news reports, firefighters’ newsletters, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s congressional Web site, a government grants manual, and so on.
The report of the September 11 Commission says, “Some of the saddest aspects of the 9/11 story are the outstanding efforts of so many individual officials straining, often without success, against the boundaries of the possible. Good people can overcome bad structures. They should not have to.” The commissioners were referring to governmental structures. One such structure is the hoary old practice of pork-barrel spending.
The commission also said, “Much of the public commentary about the 9/11 attacks has dealt with ‘lost opportunities.'”
Each day now is an opportunity, and many of them are being lost. In the weeks immediately after Sept. 11, there was much talk about working for all, of putting aside differences, of sacrifice. But that period has passed. Members of Congress from different states are pitted against each other. None has been willing to sacrifice funding for his or her own state so that states at greater risk could be protected. The greedfest underway in Washington is embarrassing. It bears no resemblance to an effort for the common good.
If another terrorist tragedy befalls us and the subsequent investigating commission finds that pork-barrel practices were one of the factors that caused it, practitioners of politics as usual will have much for which they’ll have to answer.