Homeland security is not politics

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reversed last year’s controversial decision to reduce funding for several U.S. cities considered prime targets for future terrorist attacks, including New York and Washington. That’s good news for the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs, but as D.C.’s abrupt reversal of fortune reveals, the process is still far too political.

Following sharp criticism of DHS’s risk assessment formula, funding for Washington — one of only two urban areas hit on Sept. 11, 2001 — increased 20 percent this year after a 40 percent decrease last year. This wouldn’t have happened if a good risk assessment system had been in place.

Even DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff admitted that his job over the next year and a half will be to “call out the special interests” and get Congress to decide which areas are most vulnerable. But by leaving such critical decisions to members of Congress, we’ll see the same kind of political jockeying that happens every time they get their hands on a new appropriations bill. Which may be good enough when pork is being doled out, but not when mass casualties could result.

Homeland Security funds should be used to secure critical national infrastructure such as bridges, refineries, power plants, ports and key government installations, not pay for equipment local police departments should already have on hand. But much of the $62 million in additional funding going to the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs, for example, will be spent on bomb squads, emergency communications equipment and information-sharing centers that don’t work because of continuing interagency turf battles.

There’s no way the federal government can protect every individual and every structure in America 24/7. Chertoff’s job is to make an objective inventory of all likely targets, decide how important and vulnerable they are, and then allocate limited federal resources where they will do the most good. But to work, this process must be done as far from the political deal-making arena as is humanly possible.

Chertoff warned that awarding more Homeland Security grants to large urban areas will virtually eliminate all aid to midsize cities. But if DHS did a better job assessing risks and tracking the $23 billion it’s already spent on homeland security over the last six years, such a Hobbesian choice would not be necessary. The department would already know exactly which potential targets and population centers most needed protecting.

At this late date, merely handing out more money to state and local officials who still haven’t figured out how to talk to each other in an emergency is just throwing good money after bad.

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