Sunday, May 23, 2010

Homeland Security Funding: One Fine Pig!

I must warn you, the reader, this blog entry is one of my longer posts. It is not without reason though; the problem addressed below is a complex one, an issue that has not been adequately addressed in almost a decade, and one which if not addressed will come under scrutiny by Congress after the next terrorist attack as if no one knew about it. Here is their warning.

Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 departments and agencies at all levels of government charged with counterterrorism have been vigilantly awaiting the next attack. They are realists; they understand it is not a matter of if, but of when and how big. We have seen a few botched opportunities, Najibullah Zazi, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and most recently Faisal Shahzad. There have even been a few successful, albeit low-tech, attacks, such as Carlos Leon Bledsoe who shot two Soldiers in front of a recruiting station in Little Rock and the Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.

Part of the federal government’s counterterror program includes providing funds, hundreds of billions of dollars since 9/11, to high-risk cities and regions. The way the risk is determined is based on a simple methodological process whereby analysts evaluate the threat to that city (TA), the criticality of infrastructure / key resources in or near the city (CA), this includes population density, and the city’s major vulnerabilities (VA).* This is a standard methodological approach to assessing risk and can be found in almost all risk assessments regardless of the topic; terrorism, business continuity, disaster preparedness, and emergency management, just to name a few. Some of the most “out-of-the-box” thinkers have even adapted it to areas such as business development and operations management.

* The formula is usually rendered as RA = TA + CA + VA.

Last week New York City Mayor Bloomberg complained his “city is continually shortchanged on anti-terror funding given the threats it faces.” Bloomberg and other politicians, such as NY Rep. (R-L.I.) Pete King, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, feel that New York City should receive most of the homeland security money and that, because they are not, then Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano must not be doing their jobs.** Of course, Bloomberg failed to mention that just one week before the attempted bombing of Times Square he had been set to lay-off almost a thousand NYC police officers. He has since changed his mind.

**According to Obama and Napolitano, the money has been provided; New York City officials have just not accessed it and put it to use.

The problem

Once a risk assessment is conducted it should be used to develop a prioritized list of the most high-risk cities so that federal funding can be allocated accordingly. Ideally this process is apolitical and not subject to human interference, if done properly and according to the methodology in place. However, at the end of the day the process involves the distribution of money. Herein lays the problem. In politics money equals power. The more money a politician brings to their constituents the more jobs can be kept or created and the better chance that politician has of being re-elected. Of course the politicians do not couch it in that language. They use the language of fear, claiming their city is the biggest terrorist target or has the most important infrastructure or vulnerabilities.

With the Bush administration still reeling from 9/11, a number of so-called “terrorism experts” began to appear as talking heads on cable news shows and providing testimony to Congressional committees. The majority of these “experts” were long-time law enforcement officers with maybe, if they were lucky, a short term assignment to a terrorism investigation some time in their career or they were long-time academicians who maybe wrote a book or a few magazine articles on the Palestinian-Israeli problem; almost none were true experts, current or former State Department or U.S. military personnel with real counterterrorism experience. Each of these “experts” had their own view on al-Qa`ida, bin Laden, and terrorism in general. Like all politicians, in an effort to demonstrate to the American public that he was taking some sort of action to keep another attack from happening, the Bush administration simply began to throw money at the problem based on the information or recommendations of these “experts” instead of thinking through the problem and developing a comprehensive national antiterrorism program. Instead, every “expert” that recommended a course of action or a new program saw money thrown into their project, with most never getting started, not meeting expectations, or becoming obsolete, either because of advances in technology or changes in al-Qa`ida’s tactics, by the time they were implemented. Since 9/11, and not even counting Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has witnessed probably the largest example of governmental waste, fraud, and abuse in our nation’s history—and we continue to experience terrorist plots and attempts, the last few of which were foiled solely by good old American luck.

Besides the failure of the Bush, and subsequently the Obama, administration to establish a comprehensive program for homeland security funding, another, even larger problem, has been the power members of Congress have over not only their respective committees, but their ability to re-allocate monies in the federal budget to pet projects; known colloquially as “pork.” This type of effort is usually done at the behest of lobbyists or special interest groups. For example, in January the Heritage Foundation published an article by Matt Mayer who reported “Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., covertly slipped a provision into the [DHS] appropriation bill” that essentially re-allocated $4.5 million, which was initially earmarked for TSA “screening operations and…explosive detection systems,” to “an ineffective [FEMA] grant program for firefighters.” Dodd did this only five months before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest flight on Christmas Day last year, a flight he succeeded in boarding due to ineffective screening. While firefighters are an important part to terrorism response, the original focus of the money was on terrorism prevention—something still relatively new in the U.S.—firefighting is part of disaster response and is in place whether there are terrorists or not. Dodd was willing to risk the murder of hundreds of people simply to please a special interest group, in this case the International Association of Fire Fighters. Does anyone really believe if Abdulmutallab succeeded in killing everyone on that flight that politicians like Sen. Dodd would be hauled before a Congressional committee to answer for his “pork” project? The answer is no, it would never happen. I suppose Dodd would have reassured himself that even if those people were killed the firefighters would have been there to put out the flames.

Every year billions of dollars are provided to cities to develop or enhance their security and response capabilities; however, almost a decade after the attacks some major cities still lack basic antiterrorism security equipment and response plans. It begs the question, what have they been doing with the money? The Department of Defense (DOD) has required certain antiterrorism measures on all of their military bases since the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Two key elements of the DOD program, known officially as the Joint Staff Integrated Vulnerability Assessment (JSIVA) program, are 1) every installation initially received a similar package of security and response equipment regardless of their size and 2) every installation receives a vulnerability assessment every three years. It does not matter if the base consists of 100 people or 50,000 people, the initial baseline package was the same. This package consisted of things like barriers for entrances, booths for security forces, and other items.*** The larger bases obviously received more of each type. Every three years one of the JSIVA teams visits the base and assesses things like physical security, information security, operational security, intelligence capabilities and processes, the base’s threat assessment process, emergency preparedness, and disaster response readiness. A final report is then written outlining both best practices and major vulnerabilities; recommendations on how to mitigate or eliminate those vulnerabilities are also provided in the report. Commanders are then able to properly and effectively conduct a comprehensive risk assessment so that they can consciously determine where they can safely assume the least risk and to what problem areas their limited money and equipment needs to be applied. This sounds like something that our large cities, by all accounts our biggest targets, should have done at least once in the past nine years. But according to Mayer’s article, “we have no real idea whether the billions spent have made us safer because DHS has failed to do a comprehensive capabilities assessment since 2003.” According to a body of media reporting documented cases of the misuse of homeland security funds “have included small communities using these defense funds for everything from repairing pot holes to cleaning parks.” Not really the types of things that will stop terrorists, except for maybe the potholes; they could slow the terrorists down as they drive their car bomb to the target. Or better yet, maybe if the terrorists hit the holes hard enough it could set the bomb off killing them.

***While listing antiterrorism equipment and their uses is not classified, or even sensitive, unless the installation and its specific vulnerabilities are also listed I will refrain from doing so here simply as an operational security measure.

But it is not just up to DHS. The cities, in order to continue to receive federal money, should be required to show their major vulnerabilities that still need to be mitigated or eliminated. Then the following year DHS will be able to see if the money provided to the cities was properly allocated or simply wasted. We have so many other programs where states and cities are required to demonstrate sufficient progress in order to continue receiving federal funds, but we do not have one that requires them to demonstrate they are protecting their citizens from terrorists?

The solution

Terrorism funding is not and should not be based solely on threat. If this were the case, New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles would get all the money every year. As a result, the terrorists would simply move on to the next, softer, target and counterterror authorities would have to start all over with politicians calling for hearings on Capitol Hill and wanting to know why the new target was not protected and demanding someone be held accountable, when, in all reality, most of the blame in that instance would reside in offices on Capitol Hill, in Congress.

During these trying economic times most locales are facing budget and money woes. It is for this reason that cities must employ experienced risk managers, familiar with the topic of terrorism, to develop and implement a risk assessment program for the city so that antiterror and counterterror funding can be properly allocated. Most major cities have such a position in place; however, they usually have no real authority. This should be changed so that this position has a say in security and emergency response budget considerations. Ideally this person would be the security and disaster response chief and would be in charge of police, fire, EMS, and other offices charged with security or emergency management.

A risk assessment process should be implemented with an annual audit required, similar to the JSIVA assessments done by DOD. The city should be required to do this annually, or at least bi-annually, with an outside agency, ideally DHS, conducting one every five years. DHS has the framework in place—every state has or will have at least one Protective Security Advisor (PSA), at least one fusion center with at least one intelligence analyst, and a number of other DHS personnel (i.e. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Federal Protective Service). These personnel, at least in the short-term, could be brought together in Tiger Teams that could conduct the initial risk assessments of the most critical locations.

Finally, all homeland security funding would be dependent on having these risk assessments conducted according to the proscribed methodology and schedule and politicians would have no say as to how or where these funds are spent before they are disbursed. Once the city receives its money, if it chooses to spend it on something else and the same vulnerabilities show up on consecutive assessments, that city would not receive funds, or they would receive significantly less, the following year. Of course, this would require that politicians be held accountable, something to which they are not accustomed; preferring instead to assign blame, not be blamed.


As with everything political the current argument between Mayor Bloomberg and the Obama administration is not new and has transcended parties and administrations. In 2005 Mayor Bloomberg had similar complaints about the Bush administration. And as long as the current processes continue the complaints and arguments will also continue. Additionally, taxpayer money will continue to be wasted and even though billions will be spent every year we will not be any safer.

This blog is not meant to be a criticism of Mayor Bloomberg or the Obama administration. On the contrary, I believe both sides are extremely concerned about the next attack and honestly wish to ensure the right people and programs are in the right place when the time comes to either stop the attack or to quickly respond to the attack thus saving untold numbers of lives. On the other hand, I do not believe the current funding processes and programs involved in selecting and prioritizing which locations receive homeland security money and how much they receive are properly implemented. I also do not believe Congress should have a role in re-allocating homeland security money simply to secure their job; however, Congressional reform, beginning with term limits for Congress, is for a future blog. For now, a better job must be done prioritizing and auditing homeland security funds.

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