It never hurts to have
friends in high places. Mayor Jerry Sanders and San Diego's
congressional delegation may have just discovered this when some
heavy-hitting lawmakers were frustrated by the Department of
Homeland Security's rationale for deciding who gets how much in
federal anti-terrorism grants.
Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis are already well-acquainted
with this frustration. For months, the two San Diego-area
Democrats have pressed Homeland Security officials for some
details on what criteria are used to decide which regions are at
higher risk for terrorism, and therefore eligible for the
so-called Urban Area Security Initiative grant program.
In this month's round of grants, San Diego got only $7.9
million – far below last year's $14.7 million. When DHS makes
another round of awards this time next year, it plans to remove
San Diego from the list of high-risk areas that can apply for the
funds, arguing that San Diego is considered less vulnerable than
other regions because of its military presence. That is, unless
folks such as Sanders, Filner and Davis can convince the
department to reconsider.
Davis and Filner won a promise that the agency would re-examine
the reasons it used to exclude San Diego, and the lawmakers have
asked some reasonable questions: Do military bases make a region
more of a terrorist risk, for instance, or less? It's hard to
tell, given the mixed messages coming from Homeland Security
While Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently
observed about San Diego that “it's unlikely terrorists are going
to overcome the 1st Marine Division and get into the naval base,”
his department nonetheless gave Omaha, Neb., more funding than San
Diego in the last round of grant awards, presumably because it is
home to Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of the U.S. Strategic
And what about proximity to an international border? Should
this count as something that increases a region's risk of
terrorist attacks, or not? Davis, Filner and Sanders think it
should. What does Homeland Security think? We haven't a clue.
CLEAR AS MUD
Even the simplest questions on the topic are met with maddening
vagueness by Homeland Security spokespeople. Asked for an update
on the agency's review of the reasons for excluding San Diego, an
agency spokeswoman referred a reporter to a Web site that merely
outlines the amount each region got in the last round of grants.
Surely it won't compromise national security if agency officials
reveal whether military bases or proximity to an international
border weigh for or against a city when it comes to terrorism
Lately, some of Davis' and
Filner's colleagues have run into similar obstacles. Rep. Doris
Matsui, a Democrat whose Sacramento region was also cut from
eligibility for the grants, said that despite her own fact-finding
attempts, “DHS has refused to provide the information to explain
how this decision was made.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California,
a Democrat known for making things happen when she's angry or
passionate enough, said the grant-making process appears to use
“illogical” rationale that leads to “results that border on the
And when Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, learned that
his state's grant had been cut in half, you can be sure he wanted
some answers. He is also asking Homeland Security for a precise
rendering of the criteria used to award the anti-terrorism funds.
Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security may be more
responsive to King, who happens to be chairman of the House
Homeland Security Committee that will hold hearings on the grants.
If not, then perhaps a good old-fashioned investigation might
do the trick. Last week, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of
California asked the Government Accountability Office to examine
what sorts of things the agency considered when excluding San
Diego from the priority list for the federal money.
Let's hope Congress' investigative arm can pull some answers
out of an agency that so far has refused to provide many answers
Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service
and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.