The War on Hype

America's fleecing in the name of security


Rest easy, America. As a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Princeton, N.J., Fire Department now owns Nautilus exercise equipment, free weights and a Bowflex machine. The police dogs of Columbus, Ohio, are protected by Kevlar vests, thank God. Mason County, Wash., is the proud owner of a half-dozen state-of-the-art emergency radios (never mind that they are incompatible with existing county radios).

All of these crucial purchases—and many more like them—were paid for with homeland security grants. Doesn't it make you feel more secure that $100,000 in such money went to fund the federal Child Pornography Tipline? That $38 million went to cover fire claims related to the April 2001 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico? And that $2.5 billion went to "highway security"—that is, building and improving roads?

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has appropriated nearly $207 billion to protect us from terrorism. Total homeland security spending in 2006 will be at least $50 billion, split between the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies, including, improbably, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and NASA. But far from making us more secure, the money is being allocated like so much pork. While the Department of Homeland Security is finally making some improvements in how it allocates resources, much more needs to be done, especially by Congress.

Indeed, as the above examples suggest, states and cities are spending federal homeland security grants on pet projects that have little or nothing to do with security. State and local officials fight over who will get the biggest share of the money, regardless of whether they have a legitimate claim to it. Hence, of the top 10 grant recipients, only the District of Columbia also appears on a list of the 10 places most at risk of attack (see table below). The U.S. Virgin Islands receives more per capita in homeland security spending ($104.35) than does Washington, D.C. ($34.16). So do Guam ($90.36), the Northern Mariana Islands ($54), Wyoming ($37.74) and American Samoa ($37.54).

And don't think high-risk cities necessarily spend their money wisely: The District of Columbia, for instance, used the first wave of homeland security aid as "seed money" for a computerized car-towing system Mayor Anthony Williams had promised for three years to help combat fraud by private towing companies. The city also used $100,000 in homeland security money to fund the mayor's popular summer jobs program.

When Congress isn't doling out cash indiscriminately, it's overreacting to yesterday's attacks instead of concentrating on cost-effective defenses against the most likely current threats. In the days after Sept. 11, Congress created the Transportation Security Administration, a 45,000-employee bureaucracy that spends more than the FBI or Secret Service and accounts for 10 percent of the total homeland security spending. The Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has still not figured out a comprehensive plan to screen airplane cargo for explosives. More to the point, the simple and relatively cheap solution of hardening cockpit doors has made Sept. 11-style hijackings virtually impossible.

In the aftermath of the two attacks on the London subway system in July, lawmakers and lobbyists proposed increases from $100 million to $6 billion in funding to secure public transportation. Yet if the London bombings teach us anything, it's that throwing money at transit security is unlikely to have an impact. After decades of combating Irish Republican Army terrorists, the London subway system is known to be one of the best protected in the world, but the large public investment in surveillance did not prevent the two terrorist attacks. The second incident occurred even while the system was in maximum alert mode. Experts agree that options are limited, if not nonexistent, for preventing such strikes. So why spend money on it?

If Congress were serious about homeland security, it would scrap the requirement that every state be guaranteed a part of the homeland security budget, abolish all grants to state and local governments, ban all earmarks from homeland security bills, and create better oversight for its homeland security spending. These steps would root out wasteful spending and ensure that funds were allocated based on risk rather than politics.

In 2004, the members of the independent Sept. 11 Commission stated that the current system is in danger of turning homeland security funding into pork-barrel spending and making security subsidies just another state entitlement program. They suggested that homeland security funding be based strictly on an assessment of risks. Their conclusions, mainly ignored by lawmakers, did cause public debate. Greater public outrage about the deeply flawed spending process may have encouraged the Department of Homeland Security to become a stronger advocate for reform ideas unpopular in the pork-hungry Congress.

The greatest potential for reform today is coming from the department itself, which spends more than half of all homeland security funds. Following the Sept. 11 Commission's recommendations, it has started pushing for a complete overhaul of the grant formula and a more risk-based approach to homeland security in general. A possible sign of that new attitude is the Transportation Security Administration's recent decision to allow passengers to carry some knives onto airplanes. It certainly isn't enough, but it's a step in the right direction of focusing on actual risks. Meanwhile, the department's inspector general has produced several extensive reports exposing bad practices and suggesting ways to curb wasteful spending.

If Congress is waiting for guidance before it acts, it need wait no longer.

Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story also originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and can be viewed in that format here .