One-Hit Wonders

Focus on threats-after they happen-foils security spending, critics say.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would like to share some statistics.

In preparation for hurricane season this year, the Homeland Security Department has four times as many trucks of ice and four times as many meals in stock as it did before last year's disastrous season, and a network of supplies to sustain 1 million people for at least a week.

There's only one problem: Hurricane Katrina was last year.

"Every federal agency mentioned in the National Response Plan is stationed in the Louisiana area," says Eric Noji, a former chief in the bioterrorism preparedness and response section of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're always fighting the last war. What are the odds of New Orleans getting hit again this year?"

That is a criticism many now level at DHS even under Chertoff, who arrived in February 2005 preaching the virtues of a risk-based approach to security. "The media and the public often focus principally on threats," Chertoff said at a March 2005 forum at The George Washington University. "Threats are important, but they should not be automatic instigators of action."

Yet, DHS' response to the foiled transatlantic aviation bombing plot was just the latest example of the department allowing single events and their public attention to shape security policies, some critics say. After the arrest of British nationals allegedly planning to smuggle liquid explosive components on board U.S.-bound flights and then assemble and detonate them mid-flight, the Transportation Security Agency banned liquids in carry-on baggage on all flights, and carry-on luggage for flights between Britain and the United States.

"Our policy, in spite of any claims to the contrary, is primarily based on countering individual threats as they appear in the press," says Michael J. Hopmeier, president of the consulting firm Unconventional Concepts Inc. in Mary Esther, Fla., and a former adviser to the surgeon general. "The recent attempts to deal with liquid explosives are an excellent example; the threat of liquid explosives to aircraft is no greater today than it was on [Aug. 8], just before the potential attacks were announced. Yet the U.S. went through a chaotic knee-jerk reaction to address them only after they made headlines."

Critics of DHS say it's a pattern. After several anthrax-laced letters were sent to Capitol Hill and media outlets in 2001, the federal government awarded contracts worth more than $1 billion for vaccines and therapeutics to treat anthrax. Only $360 million in procurements has gone to treatments for the rest of the pathogens listed in the CDC's highest-priority Category A. The arrest of attempted "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid in December 2001 was followed by a ban on lighters aboard commercial planes and a de facto policy of shoe removal at airport security checkpoints. Though some initiatives were launched in 2003, the bulk of spending on pandemic flu preparedness came after avian flu captured the nation's attention last fall. Since the hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, spending on aviation security has run more than 700 percent higher than on other transit sectors, according to congressional reports.

The trend is not limited to DHS. The July 2005 subway bombings in London produced calls on Capitol Hill for increased spending on rail security, as various lawmakers argued nonaviation sectors have been short-changed by a heavy focus on airport security. (Chertoff responded that his decisions would not be "driven by a single event.") A year later, after the alleged plot to destroy transatlantic jets, many federal lawmakers called for a renewed focus on aviation security and increased funding for liquid explosive detectors.

One former FBI executive compares the approach to watching children play soccer; most of the players leave their position to follow the ball in a giant horde, a phenomenon he calls "magnet ball."

"We tend to do that," says the former FBI official, who asked not to be named so as not to sour relations with DHS. "It's like schools of fish. . . . We don't have a real strategy for biodefense in this country. . . . DHS and [Health and Human Services] are basically playing magnet ball, swarming to the crisis du jour or a perceived crisis."

Last year, the crisis was Hurricane Katrina, which has spurred enormous spending not only on Gulf Coast recovery, but on hurricane preparedness-technological and otherwise. But there would have been no federal funding for renovating New Orleans' levees or improving hurricane preparedness if not for the real-life event, says Noji, now a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Meanwhile, funding for earthquake preparedness is lacking, Noji says. Funding can be counted on to rise after an earthquake, he says, which ironically is the one time an episode is less likely because the tectonic pressure has been relieved by the tremor. "The whole national disaster medical system is put together for a catastrophic earthquake on the San Andreas fault," he says. "No one is talking about that now."

It's not just needs for other disaster threats that suffer. Many say the whole system is worse off when attention is focused on solutions for a specific threat, instead of building capabilities to respond to all potential disasters-natural and man-made.

"The thing that's particularly frustrating is that many of us work very hard to develop an all-hazards approach to planning. We want to be efficient with tax dollars and effective in terms of plan sustainability," says Kerry Fosher, a research associate at the New England Center for Emergency Preparedness at Dartmouth Medical School. "Then the press and Congress get enamored of a particular problem and all of the sudden you have mandates that locals need to generate smallpox or pandemic flu plans after you promised them that you will not make them plan for the disease of the week. Funds for planning are in very short supply and the all-hazards model tends to be a cost-saver in the long run."

On the other hand, increased spending following a high-profile crisis can go to areas that need it. Much of the pandemic flu spending, for example, has gone to rebuilding domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and public health infrastructure. Those are two areas experts have long complained have been allowed to deteriorate.

Still, consultant Hopmeier and others say the government must stop coming up with new defenses against single threats and adopt a more systematic approach to improving security.

"One can almost imagine a terrorist mastermind sitting back and saying, 'How will I make the U.S. dance today?' " says Hopmeier. " 'A phone call discussing an explosive barge blowing up an oil terminal? No, I'll leave a notebook describing an effort to dump radio-active material into a water reservoir.' Each of these is predictable, each is as big a threat today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, and any information that someone is planning on doing it will cause a reactionary response to address it."

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