Homeland insecurity grows

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

June 19, 2006

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 headquarters.

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 Command.

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 risk.

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 absurd.”

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 at all.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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