Is Your Town Safe From Terrorists?

Only the Department of Homeland Security knows...


Who said that New York City had no "national monuments or icons," and that Washington, D.C. belongs in the bottom-25-percent risk category for terrorist attack on U.S. states and territories?

The Department of Homeland Security said it. Officials from New York and Washington received the news when they asked the DHS to explain its recent decision to reduce their grant funds by 40 percent while Charlotte, Omaha and Louisville saw their funding increase by more than 60 percent.

After the department announced the grants, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) charged that DHS had "declared war on New York." Some of this rhetoric can be dismissed as the inevitable jockeying for handouts that occurs when the federal government takes over a function that should be handled by state and local government.

But this does not necessarily mean that King's complaints have no merit. No one knows because the DHS insists that the criteria and the people behind those funding decisions remain secret.

We do know, however, that a peer review panel of about 100 anonymous law enforcement officials and bureaucrats picked by governors, mayors, and local homeland security officials took vows of silence and signed agreements that they wouldn't reveal the substance of deliberations. We also know that this is a dramatic departure from the Department's announced commitment to transparency and risk-based procedures.

Last January, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff called for a more transparent, rational and risk-based allocation of anti-terror funding. In particular, he announced massive reforms in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI)—a grant targeting the "most at risk cities"—at the center of today's controversy. That was welcome news; until then lawmakers had treated security funds not as a means for protecting the country's most vulnerable areas, but as a way to divert more cash to their own states and districts.

The reforms were supposed to address these problems. First, DHS would use more and better data in its assessments and refine its criteria for assessing risk and deciding which cities were eligible for funding. Second, DHS came up with a "targeted capability list" that assessed which risks needed to be addressed first, and with which intensity. This would guarantee that New York has enough trained bomb squads while stopping small cities like Colchester Vermont (population, 18,000) from buying $58,000 rescue vehicles capable of boring through concrete to search for victims in collapsed buildings.

Finally, each eligible city would have to make the case for its funding request by submitting an investment justification. It meant that a high-risk city unwilling or incapable of presenting a cost-effective plan for how it would spend the federal money could see its funding seriously reduced.

The relative simplicity and transparency of the system had two main benefits. First, money would be allocated based on risk rather than politics. And second, because the department would be faithfully and openly following a process it had established, it would finally be in a position to defend its funding decisions.

And that's what's problematic about last week decision to reduce New York's UASI grant by $83 million and Washington's by $31 million while increasing the Jersey City/Newark area's funding by $15.2 million* and Louisville's by $3 million—a 70 percent increase. The combination of concealment and political tone-deafness makes it impossible for anyone to assess this year's allocation.

There are legitimate reasons why New York might have received less money this year. First, Congress cut the overall state homeland security grant program by 29 percent from 2005 to 2006. And the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant has received a 14 percent cut—$125 million—compared to 2005 levels, which would explain why, in real dollar terms, New York is receiving less this year.

Second, New York could have done a poor job on its grant application. By all accounts, that's not the case. Finally, the reduced funding could be the sign that New York's needs for security spending have decreased. New York has received more than $528 million of UASI money in the past three years. This year's $124-million grant is 50 percent more than that for Los Angeles, the next-highest area, and represents a significant increase over the $46 million the city received in 2004.

This last point is important. Grants are not entitlements. Local governments should bear the primary responsibility for public safety. However, since the beginning, city officials have expected the federal government not only to bear most of the anti-terror costs but also to keep this flow of cash coming indefinitely. A well designed system would do exactly the opposite. At some point every city—even New York—should stop receiving federal security grants because the most catastrophic threats would have been addressed.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing whether New York has reached this stage. Nor can we tell whether it is justified for the federal government to spend millions of dollars in cities like Omaha and Charlotte which the insurance industry has classified as low risk. What we know for sure is that the department's lack of transparency and disclosure about its decision demonstrates how an issue central to the lives and property of Americans is once again moving away from security concerns to political ones.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified $15.2 as the figure for New Jersey. This is the figure for Newark/Jersey City.