Experts fear homeland security windfall could be misspent

Without a national plan, experts and some members of Congress fear the President's multi-billion dollar budget for homeland security will be misspent.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., went to the Renaissance Hotel in Fort Lauderdale on January 11 to receive an award for encouraging youth civic involvement. But several folks who approached Hastings weren't interested in his award. They wanted to know who was protecting Port Everglades, which receives more than 5,800 ships a year and is located in a densely populated section of Broward County. The residents were worried about what was being done to keep terrorists from attacking the port, or from entering the United States there.

Hastings's story is not unique. Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill this month from their holiday recess with a myriad of security concerns. And those concerns are not amorphous; they involve specific water plants, power plants, seaports, airports, and railroad tracks near their constituents' neighborhoods. In other words, homeland security has struck home. "There's no question that it is something that comes up," Hastings said. "It is something that is resonating."

This week, President Bush tried to respond to those concerns in his fiscal 2003 budget. He proposed to double spending for homeland security--to $37.7 billion--with a heavy concentration in the areas of border security, bioterrorism, emergency response, and intelligence-sharing. While experts and advocates applauded the increased focus on homeland security as a whole, some fear that the money could be misspent--or earmarked for specific congressional pet projects--because there is no overall national plan.

"I don't get any sense of strategy or priorities coming from the budget," said defense analyst Frank Hoffman, a former aide to the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. "Without a comprehensive national plan, additional resources may not contribute to any real domestic preparedness."

But coming up with a national strategy has already proved to be politically difficult. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's proposal for consolidating several federal border agencies met with resistance, so the plan was tabled until March to give officials in certain departments time to develop their own ideas. Ridge will release a final proposal by summer. So far, he has simply articulated broad goals that a national strategy might address.

In the absence of a plan, the extra money will give Congress the opportunity to fund pet projects, rather than national needs, said Hoffman, now a Marine Corps consultant. "The Hill's going to piecemeal this thing to death, unless they have a comprehensive strategy," he said. "You'll get something that will be less than the sum of its parts." As the money trickles down, Hoffman said, a lack of direction from Washington could mean that state and local governments spend federal dollars on programs they would have otherwise funded themselves, or on programs that have little to do with homeland defense.

Some members of Congress also worry about whether funds will be used efficiently if there is no plan to guide the spending. "As we implement and as we spend this money, I do have some concerns that it's coordinated, that it's spent the right way," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who last year introduced a bill to consolidate the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, and the Coast Guard into one agency. But Thornberry is also pragmatic: "You can't let the perfect defeat the good."

The biggest share of Bush's proposed homeland security money goes to border security, $10.6 billion, even if only to place the borders in a sort of reinforced holding pattern. The President's proposal of approximately $712 million for immigration personnel would pay for 570 new border-control agents, split evenly between the northern and southwestern borders; and 1,160 new immigration inspectors for land, air, and sea entry ports. The Customs Service would get $255 million more to pay for 800 new inspectors and for equipment. The Coast Guard, which has assumed most port-security duties, would get an additional $73 million.

Bush's budget proposal shows that he "understands the symbolic value of throwing some more money at the border," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, based in Washington. "What disturbs me is, I don't know what the direction is. It's the difference between playing chess and playing checkers. You have to think two or three steps ahead."

Stephen E. Flynn, a former aide to the National Security Council, suggested that in the long term, the focus should be on finding ways to let border inspectors concentrate their efforts on the most-suspicious people and products. Flynn said while he recognizes the need for more inspectors, he would like to see a simultaneous movement toward a grand plan for border security.

Although border security is a priority, the Administration proposed little additional funding for investigating people and goods before they reach the United States. Bush asked for $100 million for the State Department to hire 399 more Foreign Service staffers and 98 additional consular officers to process visas. But the bulk of the State Department's proposed anti-terrorism budget--an additional $1.4 billion--would be focused on securing U.S. facilities overseas, spreading the gospel of America, and bolstering countries that enlist in the war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, the bioterrorism component of the homeland security budget drew largely favorable reviews from public health experts. Often relegated to the back of the budget, public health is front and center now, thanks to Bush's proposed $5.9 billion bioterrorism effort-a $760 million boost from last year's spending, which included a $3.7 billion supplemental appropriation after September 11.

"We are now on the threshold of a new era," said Margaret Hamburg, who is a former assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Health and Human Services Department, and a former New York City health commissioner. She lauded the $1.2 billion proposal to help state and local officials bolster their public health infrastructure to better respond to a terrorist attack.

Research would get the biggest slice of Bush's proposed bioterrorism funding, with about $2.4 billion going toward creating new vaccines and developing better threat-assessment technology. Still, one key critic-Lawrence O. Gostin, co-director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health, founded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--said that the emphasis on research reinforces the "very badly skewed" priorities responsible for what many people say is a dilapidated public health system.

The President's budget would also provide $1.8 billion for medical equipment and vaccines for use in case of a biological attack. But some doctors, notably Sandro Cinti, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), worry the money will be spent on tools that look good but are unproven-such as rapid tests for anthrax.

The largest proportional increase in homeland security funding would be targeted to assist the fire, police, and emergency medical personnel who are the first to arrive on the scene of a disaster. The $3.5 billion in the President's request is more than a threefold increase from last year. The money would go to equipment, training, creation of response plans, and emergency simulations. The biggest portion of that money, $1.4 billion, would focus on enhancing communication.

While they say the Administration has the right approach, some intended recipients of the money are cautious. "The challenge is always the translation of words into reality, and the fire service--routinely, in those kinds of discussions--we get lip service," said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He noted that firefighting money has been folded into Bush's overall budget for "first responder" programs. "If there's $3.5 billion out there, there will be a lot of people out there who identify themselves as first responders," Briese said.

The perceived need among cities is huge, and the question is whether Bush's proposed funding levels will be sufficient. The nation's mayors recently reported that between September 11 and the end of 2002, they will have spent an additional $2.6 billion on security. "Tightening security in the aftermath of September 11 threatens to break the bank for many city budgets," New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in releasing the report last month. Half of that amount will be for equipment-items that the Administration plan might cover. But 23 percent will have gone for backlogged overtime payments-an area the Bush budget would not cover.

The mayors have asked Congress to create a block-grant program that would provide funds directly to cities for "police and fire overtime, additional training, communications and rescue equipment, and security measures to protect airports, waterways, utilities, public transit, and other public infrastructure." To longtime Washington insiders, the proposal might sound a bit like the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a now-defunct Justice Department program that was established in the 1960s to fight crime and urban riots-and that was plagued by anecdotes of police departments spending the money on such items as tanks and deluxe, overpriced police cars.

Still, some skeptics charge that it would be difficult to make wise use of all the new money for first responders. "Whatever they say, you just have one hell of a time spending that," said Richard Stubbing, former deputy chief for national security at the Office of Management and Budget. "You're going to end up turning the spigot on and filling up whatever demands happen to show up."

Stubbing said he'd spend money on improving information-sharing among domestic and international security agencies. Nevertheless, the proposed funding for this area makes it the smallest component of Bush's homeland security budget, with $722 million proposed-up from $230 million last year. More than half of that money would be spent on establishing a system to register foreigners as they arrive and leave. The rest would go largely toward "cyberspace security."

Bush would provide little money to actually help agencies communicate with each other-the effort is relegated to one unexplained line item of $20 million for the Commerce Department. The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service each would get about $100 million to improve their existing databases and intelligence-gathering, but only a small portion of that money would go toward developing new intelligence-gathering methods. The INS, for example, would spend just $6 million on new domestic investigators and $10 million on new overseas agents.

Of course, Congress will not simply accept Bush's homeland security budget without leaving its imprint. Many members have their own ideas about where to spend the money, often starting with their own states and districts. James Dyer, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said that the panel will spend February and March talking to lawmakers and experts to "get some sort of assessment to find out what we need."

For Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., the need involves the Salem nuclear power plant, 20 miles from his district. "People are concerned about the lack of security at those installations," Andrews said. "They weren't panicked, but they wanted to know who was watching it. The answer is, the New Jersey National Guard. When they heard that, they were reassured." But National Guard protection does not come cheap.

Even remote North Dakota is not immune from worries over homeland security. A recent railroad derailment near Minot released some 200,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia and sent a poisonous cloud over the city. "It left all of us thinking about railway security and hazardous chemicals," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. "It was a point of exposure that hadn't been focused on. Railway security will have to be addressed."

The concern over security is bipartisan, as is the feeling that the federal government should help to pay for protection. "I don't know how many things in the last several months that I have been told that I either must do, or I better not do, or the terrorists are going to win," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. The challenge will be how to meet lawmakers' genuine needs, while weeding out pork barrel requests cloaked as "vital" projects. Armey vowed that House Republican leaders will be particularly diligent in trying to evaluate members' requests.

Still, a huge increase in federal spending on homeland security is inevitable. And in an election year, with constituent fears heightened, members will be looking for ways to allay those fears and tout their own success. As Congress decides how best to distribute the money, block grants may not have enough strings attached to satisfy some. On the other hand, Congress must be careful not to go overboard in earmarking the money for specific projects in specific cities. Dyer said the House Appropriations Committee will fight that inclination. "We're trying very hard to stay away from earmarks," he said.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime critic of congressional pork, already is expecting homeland security spending to run amok. Citing some questionable costs at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City as an example, McCain noted, "In the name of security, they have put in pork barrel spending."

Indeed, plenty of lawmakers and advocacy groups realize the convenience of attaching a "homeland security" tag to their pet project. "I notice that some people are repackaging what they wanted in August of 2000 as `vital homeland security,' " said a senior Senate Democratic aide. "And it still looks the same."