The Cost of Safety

Posted: Nov 26, 2003 12:00 AM

We’re spending too much on homeland security.

How’s that possible? After all, the nation is at war. Just this month, al Qaeda vowed to keep up its attacks around the world until they reach Washington, D.C. The United Nations recently warned that the terrorist group is working toward launching a biological or chemical attack. And the Department of Homeland Security remains concerned al Qaeda may hijack more planes and attempt to crash them into facilities that contain hazardous materials.

The threat is real, and clearly we need to spend whatever it takes to keep ourselves safe.

But that’s not what’s happening. We’re spending. Hundreds of millions of dollars, and counting. But too much of that is being wasted.

The Washington Post has done what Congress can’t, or won’t. The paper took a look at where our “homeland security” spending over the last two years has gone. Its findings are dismaying, if not surprising.

Our tax dollars have bought:

  • A boat for a volunteer fire department in Virginia ($350,000)
  • A computerized car-towing system for Washington, D.C. ($300,000)
  • Eight large-screen plasma televisions for an emergency operations center in suburban Maryland ($160,000)

In addition, millions of dollars went to buy riot gear and uniforms for first responders, while many local schools were outfitted with hallway surveillance cameras. And that’s just here in the D.C. area.

Now, all of these may, or may not, be worthy projects. It’s certainly possible for officials to defend them as “critical” to homeland security, since just about anything from military readiness to proper table manners can be considered critical if one stretches the definition of homeland security far enough.

However, Congress specifically attempted to avoid any such stretching. Before getting any federal homeland security money, recipients signed a pledge reading, “I hereby certify that federal funds will not be used to replace or supplant state or local funds … that would … [otherwise] be made available for public safety purposes.”

But as the Post reporting found, that pledge hasn’t prevented federal money from being misused.

At the same time, some truly worthy projects are stalled. For example, we’ve spent $63 million so far to upgrade communications systems in the D.C. area. But even that doesn’t seem to be enough.

There are two states, plus the District, plus any number of county and city governments within 30 miles of the White House. In the event of another attack, first responders from all these jurisdictions would be involved, and that means they have to be able to speak to each other.

However, there’s still no single radio network that police, fire and hospital officials can use to coordinate. Despite all we’ve learned, an emergency response today would probably go no more smoothly than on Sept. 11. We’d be safer if Congress insisted we spend a few million more to finish building a reliable radio network, while insisting that our police continue to wear their old uniforms.

But even congressional involvement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This year, lawmakers forced the Department of Homeland Security to divvy up its spending based on state population, rather than local risk. That meant states like North Dakota and Kentucky got more DHS funding than the nation’s capitol. That makes no sense at all, since the terrorists have repeatedly vowed to attack Washington, but haven’t yet said a word about Fargo or Frankfort.

It may be politically incorrect to say this, but federal money for training, equipment and personnel should be focused where we’re likely to be attacked: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago.

This is an issue of national security, and overspending may come back to haunt us. “If you simply fund every local desire,” Heritage Foundation fellow and former Virginia governor James Gilmore told the Post,  “the demand for money is going to be so great that you are going to break the back of the economy, which is exactly what the terrorists would like.”
We will win the war on terrorism.

In the meantime, it’s possible to make our homeland safer. But only if we stop blindly throwing money at the problem, and focus our resources where they’re really needed. That’s the only way to make sure we’re not, in fact, spending too much on homeland security.