Time for cooler heads

Posted: Jun 09, 2006 12:05 AM
One thing we can say for certain about our terrorist enemies: They’re persistent.

They first attempted to destroy New York’s World Trade Center in 1993. That plot failed, and too many Americans simply forgot about it. But violent Islamists never did. In 2001 they deployed different tactics to bring both towers down and kill thousands of people.

We should never forget that on 9/11 the terrorists also crashed a plane into the Pentagon -- damaging it but not destroying it. And we can safely assume Flight 93 was heading for the White House or the Capitol when its brave passengers fought back and forced it down in the Pennsylvania countryside.

The lesson of history is clear: Islamic terrorists will try again to kill as many civilians as possible, and they may well even strike targets they’ve already attacked but failed to destroy. The threat is large and our budget is limited, so we need to build a federal system focused on preventing and responding to catastrophes.

One much-maligned program, the Urban Area Security Initiative, is actually an important step in that direction.

The program earned a lot of bad press when it recently announced its first grants, because New York City and Washington, D.C. saw their funding drop, while smaller cities (including Omaha, Neb. and Charlotte, N.C.) saw theirs increase.

“Terror? What Terror?” the New York Post wondered on its front page, adding “Feds slash our funds to boost hicks in sticks.” Rep. Peter King, the Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned that DHS secretary Michael Chertoff could be fired because of the funding flap. “The burden is on him. He has to prove why he should keep the job,” King told reporters. The New York Daily News called Chertoff “a supremely arrogant weasel.”

Cooler heads must prevail.

It’s easy to resort to the knee-jerk reaction and claim the federal government isn’t spending enough on homeland security, whether in one specific region or nationwide. But let’s remember that more spending doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.

If spending was the only measure, we’d have to say that Congress is 20 percent better today than it was in 2001, and that’s certainly not true. In fact, Congress’ job performance is actually going down as it spends more. Rather than take action to solve problems, lawmakers too often throw money at them and hope they’ll just go away.

The proper question to ask about federal spending isn’t “How much are we spending?” It’s “How effective is our spending?” The Department of Homeland Security is trying to do that.

DHS didn’t just pull its grant figures out of thin air; it first looked at threat assessments from the intelligence community, analyzed the vulnerability of critical infrastructure, considered how many people lived in given areas, along with what jobs those people did, and reviewed how much support local officials were able to provide.

After doing all that homework, it issued the grant requests that sent Rep. King and others into a frenzy. But if lawmakers want to point a finger at Chertoff, they should beware: When it comes to spending, four fingers point back at them.

Under a provision of the Patriot Act (passed by lawmakers), a significant portion of homeland security grants are simply divided among the states without regard to need or risk. Thus, at least 40 percent of state grants are nothing more than entitlement spending.

That’s fine for lawmakers who want to “bring home the bacon,” but most Americans would argue that homeland security is too important to serve as a pork barrel. If Congress would lift its restrictions and allow all homeland security spending to be based on risk, vulnerability and national priorities, more money could go where it’s really needed.

Under such a system, New York and Washington probably would get even more money than they’re getting now. Even so, they should still have to account for all their spending -- at least part of New York’s grant money is spent on overtime for police officers, which should be a local, not a national, responsibility.

The controversial DHS grants program is actually a step in the right direction. Instead of holding hearings and claiming their district was shortchanged, lawmakers should vote to allow more tax dollars to be allotted by need. That’s the best way to build a system that will help us be ready when the terrorists try to hit us again.