Tightened Homeland Security budget still adequate, officials say

Obama’s proposal would transfer funds from consultants, travel and supplies to boost ships, aircraft, airport screening and border security.

At 0.7 percent, the budget increase proposed for the Homeland Security Department won't keep up with inflation, but the $43.2 billion allocation is enough to defend U.S. aviation, surface transportation, infrastructure and cyber networks, DHS officials said on Monday.

The proposed budget would give the agency $309 million more than was budgeted for 2010 -- albeit $400 million less than was sought in the $43.6 billion 2011 DHS budget that failed to win congressional approval.

The 2012 budget would cut more than $800 million from administrative costs so that money can be spent on "front-line operations," said Peggy Sherry, the department's chief financial officer. More than $450 million would be cut from spending on consultants, travel, printing and supplies, according to budget documents.

Instead, the money is slated for U.S. Coast Guard ships and aircraft, airport security, surveillance technology for the Southwest border, on cybersecurity and on hiring several hundred additional security personnel.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I- Conn., praised proposed spending increases on cybersecurity, the acquisition workforce and transportation security. But he criticized plans to cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency's operating budget by $88 million, or 10 percent, and cuts of $140 million, or 17 percent, in grants to localities to train, equip and hire firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Homeland Affairs and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is set to examine the 2012 budget request in detail on Feb. 17.

The budget provides $1.4 billion to the Coast Guard to buy new ships and planes and to improve shore facilities. The ships include a national security cutter priced at about $480 million, six fast response cutters that together cost $358 million, and two maritime patrol planes for $130 million.

Another $93 million is for improvements to shore facilities, and $65 million is to begin full-rate production of Rescue 21, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue communications system, according to a DHS budget summary.

The 2012 budget includes $273 million to install new explosive detection equipment at major U.S. airports for screening baggage. More than 800 units now in use will exceed their 10-year service life in 2012, according to DHS documents.

Airport security also is to be beefed up with $105.2 million for buying 275 advanced imaging machines and hiring 535 workers to operate them. The machines screen passengers for hidden weapons. There are already 1,000 imaging machines in use, DHS officials said.

An additional 300 Customs and Border Protection officers would be hired to screen passengers and cargo arriving at land ports of entry, and to screen U.S.-bound passengers at foreign airports.

The budget includes $242 million to buy surveillance equipment to be installed along the Arizona-Mexico border in place of the failed technology-heavy Secure Border Initiative network. The new gear is to be "commercially available technology" selected by DHS after "rigorous analysis" of alternatives to SBInet, Sherry said. It will include a mix of sensors installed on "integrated fixed towers" and mobile equipment, and it will cost less than SBInet equipment, she added.

The agency also plans to spend $55 million on surveillance technology for the U.S-Canada border, Sherry said.

DHS wants to spend $184 million in 2012 on its Secure Communities program, which uses biometric information to identify criminal aliens in state prisons and local jails. That's a $64 million increase over 2010, and the added funds will expand deployment of biometric equipment to 96 percent of U.S. jurisdictions, Sherry said.

The budget includes $459 million for operating its National Cybersecurity Division, which defends federal computer systems and other information networks against attacks and disruptions. In addition, DHS said it wants $40.9 million to conduct 66 network assessments to improve network security in federal agencies, and $32.3 million to establish a departmentwide unified e-mail network.

The budget includes $3.8 billion to be handed out to states and localities to hire, equip, train and exercise first responders. And it provides $420 million in grants for rehiring or retaining 2,300 laid-off firefighters and first responders.

And the national Disaster Relief Fund is budgeted for $1.8 billion in 2012, down from $1.95 billion in the 2011 budget.