Monday, September 13, 2004

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (2)

You say "Department of Homeland Security" I say "massive pork barrel"

Amy Zegart had a must-read op-ed in yesterday's Newsday on homeland security and intelligence reform. Here's one of the disturbing bits:

If we ask how far we have come since 9/11 in terms of safety planning the evidence is not encouraging.

Homeland security funds are flowing, but not to the right places. Since 9/11, Congress has distributed $13 billion to state governments with a formula only Washington could concoct: 40 percent was split evenly, regardless of a state's population, targets or vulnerability to terrorist attack. The result: Safe places got safer. Rural states with fewer potential targets and low populations, such as Alaska and Wyoming, received more than $55 per resident. Target-rich and densely populated states like New York and California received $25 and $14 per person respectively. Osama bin Laden, beware: Wyoming is well fortified.

It gets worse. Over the past three years, the federal government has spent 20 times more on aviation security than on protecting America's seaports, even though more than 90 percent of U.S. foreign trade moves by ship, but less than 5 percent of all shipping containers entering the country are inspected. One recent study showed the odds of detecting a nuclear bomb inside a heavy machinery container were close to zero. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, such a lopsided transportation strategy makes sense only if you intend to fight the last war.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM


This isn't surprising anyone, is it? The reports about ridiculous HS spending in the rural Western states appeared months ago. The reports about shipping vulnerabilities are at least as old as that ABC "look what we snuck in!" report.

And really, couldn't most of us see this coming back when the whole idea was proposed? Opposing the Department was one of the only Bush positions I have ever agreed with, so of course he caved. It was a bureaucratic nightmare waiting to happen.

posted by: Opus on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

I guess we are supposed to believe - and many right-wingers here and elsewhere do seem to buy this - that the administration secretly works very hard to prevent terrorist attacks and is just too modest to take credit for all the successes they have had.

The premature leaking of Khan's name and the fact that there have been several instances where the administration has taken credit for foiling plots or arresting people that turned out to be mostly harmless somehow doesn't prove the opposite to these people.

posted by: gw on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Wow, you're just coming to this now?

Even on the right, the Heritage Foundation noted this as a problem in May. Heritage Foundation. May.

One despairs when pundits on the right doesn't even read their own policy factory's bulletins.

posted by: paperwight on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

doesn't --> don't

posted by: paperwight on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Zegart commits the same academic errors that the 9/11 Commission did in assuming a static enemy. Further she is also guilty of allowing the physical to precede the intellectual in homeland security planning.

First, Zegart doesn't grasp that threats and vulnerabilities change, one year it may be airline suicides, the next is likely something we cannot anticipate. Terrorism is organic, as we step up efforts to protect one area, terrorists will target the weaker areas that have not received attention. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than Oklahoma City--a place that, but for McVeigh's attack, would likely rank similarly next to Wyoming and others.

Second, and perhaps most important, we do not have preparedness metrics to define exactly who is prepared and who is not. Either way, we can guess that states, cities, and localities had not achieved acceptable preparedness in the days immediately following 9/11. If we cede that terrorism is organic, that hinterland areas are just as important as urban, high density areas, then we must allow that helping to prepare smaller states must rank as a priority too. Zegart would've been on sounder ground by simply arguing for MORE money for homeland security preparedness, rather than a redirection of funds.

One final point: if we adjust our funding streams to reflect Zegart's view, what happens if a bio or chemical agent used to attack a big state crosses a border into a small state when that state lacks adequate response capability b/c of reduced funding? Thank goodness the high threat areas are "well fortified."

posted by: Chris on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]


Are you really saying that all locations face the same threat of terrorist attack regardless of their relative attractiveness to terrorists? True, threats change and terrorists adapt to changes in security, but it's likely that some areas will always be more likely targets than others. New York will always be a more attractive target than Cheyenne, Wyoming. It seems to me a more logical policy would be to adjust funding based on intelligence or other analysis that suggests a particular place might be more vulnerable. For example, maybe you get info saying that terrorists are looking to go after Mt. Rushmore; then you can funnel more money to South Dakota. But I don't see the point of giving South Dakota the same amount as New York. You have to assume there is some logic to how terrorists pick targets; surely they are more likely to go after high profile targets. Sure, it's possible that terrorists could go after targets of opportunity, but that seems less likely than them going after high value targets.

If you are talking about domestic terrorists, that might be something different, but I don't know how you could possibly provide equal protection for everything that might be a possible target in the U.S. regardless of level of probability.

posted by: MWS on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]


Good points both, let me clarify. I'm not arguing for equal funding between say Cheyenne and NYC. In fact, in terms of actual dollars, it's no where near equal with NYC receiving well in excess. What angers everyone are the "per capita" comparisons. However, I still agree with you that we should move closer toward threat-based distributions, but that we should not abandon the notion of national strategic preparedness of helping all states achieve prevention, response, recovery capabilities. Moving toward a "pure threat" formula would leave many preparedness efforts half-built. To wit, there's still the "threat du jour" problem inherent in this policy.

However, as I argued before, there are some, including the 9/11 Commission, that have derided previous efforts, in the abscence of preparedness metrics, to bolster national readiness. Until we have an understanding of who needs more help, who needs less, how can we adjust baseline preparedness funding to states/localities?

Finally, from a pragmatic standpoint, I think it's prudent to prepare for all attacks, domestic and international. I'm not suggesting you diagree with this statement, but that strategically, it behooves the U.S. to create an "all hazards" approach to preventing and responding to terrorism. The 93 and 95 bombings respectively were perpetrated by a foreign agent and a domestic agent, but the emergency response did not differ.

posted by: Chris on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Chris probably thinks that the reason we haven't been attacked again since 9/11 is that the terrorists need a lot of time carefully preparing for an attack in Wyoming. Maybe they just can't make up their minds just WHERE in Wyoming to strike.

It's amazing how partisan hacks use the defeatist attitude defense ("we can't possibly foil every terrorist plan, so we might as well not even try") to also defend pork barrel spending ("we can't possibly foil every terrorist plan, so we might as well give the money to Wyoming").

Having said that... - I'm not sure that dollars spent per person is really a good measure of whether money is spent in a sensible way. If the numbers in the article are correct, then Wyoming must have received around $27 million, whereas New York received around $455 million and California $446 million. I don't think one can easily conclude from looking at these absolute amounts that they are unreasonable. While one could certainly argue that Wyoming shouldn't have received any money at all out of this pot, dividing the amounts by the number of people is simply arbitrary. And Alaska, in particular, should probably get some money to protect its oil pipelines (but has any money been spent on this?), which again has nothing to do with how many or how few people live in Alaska.

The real problem is not that money isn't spent in a sensible way, but that a sense of urgency to actually do something about homeland security is missing both in the administration and in Congress.

posted by: gw on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

It's possible that the 40% funding is to fund federal mandates that are the same regardless of population or likelihood of attack, for instance, requirements for certain levels of readiness for biological or chemical attacks. These would be capital costs, with only a tangential relationship to scale. It may be stupid to have such federal mandates, but I doubt if it's pork.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

One follow-up comment:

It's possible that it costs less per capita to protect large cities and/or densely populated areas precisely because fixed costs can be spread across more people. In other words, densely populated areas might enjoy economies of scale.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Here's a few links:

The Neglected Home Front (addresses shipping)

Who Left The Door Open?: The argument is getting stronger, however, that [serf labor] is a short-sighted bargain for the U.S. Beyond the terrorism risks, Washington's failure to control the nation's borders has a painful impact on workers at the bottom of the ladder and, increasingly, those further up the income scale. The system holds down the pay of American workers and rewards the illegals and the businesses that hire them. It breeds anger and resentment among citizens who can't understand why illegal aliens often receive government-funded health care, education benefits and subsidized housing. In border communities, the masses of incoming illegals lay waste to the landscape and create costly burdens for agencies trying to keep public order. Moreover, the system makes a mockery of the U.S. tradition of encouraging legal immigration...

Rounding up all illegals 'not realistic' (our "border czar" not only presents a false choice, he basically says he isn't doing his job, as the TIME report in the last link illustrates.)

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Trying again:

The Neglected Home Front

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]


Thanks for the "partisan hack" tag, I always love a devolving debate. However, I'd take issue with your assertion that a smaller state like Wyoming deserves no preparedness dollars. It's an indefensible position if you consider something like a bioterror attack where an agent could easily cross from big to small state lines, urban to rural areas. What then, I wonder? See if you can actually concoct a cogent answer to that one.

And what do you make of McVeigh's searches for vulnerable targets like Little Rock (which he passed on) and eventually, Oklahoma City? It's happened before, why shouldn't this be a priority in current efforts? As we strengthen areas, terrorists will revert to our more vulnerable areas. However, under your rationale, we should only strengthen those areas we can anticipate. This reactionary mindset is decidedly pre-9/11. Under your rationale, pork barrelling is the only possible reason for funding preparedness in perceived less vulnerable areas. That kind of mindset simply won't do.

And finally, a "defeatist" mindset would suggest that we scuttle efforts b/c we can't anticipate everything. I'm only suggesting that we embrace preparations that allow for flexible response in light of decidedly imperfect intelligence. Or, perhaps, you think our intelligence on 9/11 was acceptable?

posted by: chris on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Outside the county courthouse in Canton, Miss. -- best known for its appearance in the "A Time to Kill" Grisham flick -- there is a pickup truck permanently parked, emblazoned with the logo and name of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

That is not a wise use of federal money while any schmuck can ship in a nuke warhead, or fly it into the country.

When my dad retired from U.S. Customs in 1983, he wrote to the Customs head that the Soviets were foolish to waste their money on missiles, when all they had to do was hire some drug smugglers to fly in a few warheads that could then be concealed in major cities. I'm afraid that's going to look prescient soon.

posted by: Anderson on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

It's an indefensible position if you consider something like a bioterror attack where an agent could easily cross from big to small state lines, urban to rural areas.

Which urban area is on the Wyoming state line again? Wyoming has 4.7 people per square mile. I think the best way to "prepare" them is to tell them to listen to the TV or radio and drive away as fast as they can if something bad is headed their way. That doesn't really cost anything, does it?

New York City, on the other hand, has more than 20,000 people per square mile. And it is surrounded by densely populated areas, too. Norman Pfyster argued on this thread that big cities might be cheaper to protect on a per person basis than big land areas. I guess he or you must have a cheap and easy to implement evacuation plan for New York City somewhere in your drawers.

Sure, the terrorists might nuke Denver instead, and, yes, the fallout would likely reach Wyoming then. (To be afraid of biological clouds is kind of silly in my opinion; the nuclear threat is much more real and worrisome.) You'll have to build an awful lot of fallout shelters to make sure one is in reach of each of those 4.7 people per square mile in Wyoming. Given the distance (from Denver), you would probably save a few dozen people from dying of cancer 20 or 30 years later. As the Bush government and its supporters are otherwise always quick to point out - when it comes to environmental hazards, you gotta weigh the costs.

Or you could do something to actually prepare New York City and the surrounding metro area for such an attack and quite possibly save millions of lives.

I guess these are tough choices - if you live in Wyoming or elsewhere in Bush/Cheney territory. Isn't it truly ironic that overall the people least likely to be attacked are on average the most concerned about an attack (albeit not necessarily on themselves directly)? And out of this concern they are willing to support a policy that has increased the likelihood that the rest of the country will be attacked?

posted by: gw on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

"New York City, on the other hand, has more than 20,000 people per square mile. And it is surrounded by densely populated areas, too. Norman Pfyster argued on this thread that big cities might be cheaper to protect on a per person basis than big land areas. I guess he or you must have a cheap and easy to implement evacuation plan for New York City somewhere in your drawers."

You're making my argument for me. Plans are cheap to produce, and the plan to evacuate New York probably didn't cost substantially more than a plan to evacuate Cheyenne, so on a per capita basis, the per capita cost (and thus funding) for Cheyenne will be much higher.

My comment was made from the observation that every dinky town in Wisconsin has been required to have chemical and biological attack preparedness plans and equipment and the aggregate cost is probably much higher than the comparable plans for NYC because of duplication.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Oh, yeah, I live and work in NYC, so yes, I'm personally concerned with the level of defense on this place.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Norman, my comment regarding the evacuation plans was sarcastic. If you think it just takes a well thought out plan to evacuate New York City, then I must really doubt your honesty when you claim you live there. My goodness, all the bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan are completely clogged every Friday afternoon and many other days, too, and most people aren't even trying to leave the city then!

posted by: gw on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Nah, nobody could have predicted this one from the start.

Lawrence's Second Law of Politics: any conceivable governmental program will ultimately either be converted to a pork-barrel scheme or an entitlement program [or both]. (The First Law is deals with partisan attributions of the relative genius of Karl Rove and George W. Bush, so is of limited utility; this one is more general.)

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Boys and girls remember 40% was evenly split. That is far too much for any hypothetical fixed cost/bureaucratic element. I know there is a solid idea out there that Government wastes money, but on that scale!

Norman - "Plans are cheap to produce, and the plan to evacuate New York probably didn't cost substantially more than a plan to evacuate Cheyenne". Glad you don't work in logistics. My plan for cheyenne would probably be something like put a radio announcement on to tell people where to drive. That really doesn't take time. New York by contrast would require a little more thought.

Look the sad reality is that this division of funds represents a scandalous waste of taxpayers money.

posted by: tadhgin on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

"Look the sad reality is that this division of funds represents a scandalous waste of taxpayers money."

Look, until someone can tell me how the money was spent, I'm going to hold off on the scandal thoughts. Per capita differences, which was what was cited in the article, don't tell us much, either about iniquities or cost-benefit analyses.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

The second paragraph cited is more interesting and probably has little to do with pork. My first thought is that it has to do with how politics measures costs and benefits (fighting the last war, as the article concluded, is a very human response and democratic politics generally responds to strong valence on positions). That is to say, fear of air attacks took on a greater intensity after 9/11, which would cause an "irrational" distortion of the ordinary cost-benefit analysis the political body would take for prevention of future attacks. The closest I can come to an economic justification would be that fear of flying (and a non-response to it) would have bankrupted the airline industry in a way that a ship-based attack would not impact the shipping industry.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Look, until someone can tell me how the money was spent, I'm going to hold off on the scandal thoughts.

Check out - I bet those "tractor-trailer response vehicles" weren't cheap.

Page 11 of even addresses "Wyoming in media spotlight":

The per capita issue has in, essence, placed more populous states in the position of being at odds with our rural state. We are not in a position to strike a battle with the other states, as they are simply trying to provide their first responders with the appropriate resources, just as we are.

At least they aren't saying they should in fact get even more money.

I was trying to look for similar information on the equivalent New York web site, but their site appears to be down at the moment...

posted by: gw on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Out here in the least-known state, I felt a lot safer before the Department of Homeland Security was formed. Seems to me its major goal is to raise the color every time the political polls indicate baby bush is in trouble. Otherwise, being only 300 some miles from the border, I have to depend on customs officials who will bust a college kid for plugging a toilet. Real security. Who knows when an overflowing toilet will blow up on us?

More seriously, I would suggest that the terrorists would do more damage to the mood of this country by striking in Cheyenne or elsewhere in the heartland than by hitting the obvious targets in Manhattan or Hollywood Boulevard or even the space needle. Right now the inland feels relatively safe and could care less what happens to the effete ones on the east coast. (They do remember former heroes out here.)

And I might add that Cheyenne, Wyo., population 53,552, the largest city in the state to the south of me is only 90 minute by Interstate from Denver and right on the border.

posted by: chuck rightmire on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

We can't change leaders mid-course. It doesn't matter if George W Bush hasn't bothered to protect the homeland or has created a mess in Iraq and probably doubled the size of Al-Queda. George W Bush is a strong leader. John Kerry is the choice of terrorists. Georege W Bush believes in democracy promotion. John F Kerry is a communist. That is all.

posted by: Jor on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Chuck, let's think about what our purpose is for a security effort.

I say it *must not* be to maintain a placid mood among citizens. That will fail. If there is a major attack anywhere in the USA that fails and gets publicised, we'll get hysterical. If there is a major attack anywhere that succeeds, we'll get more hysterical.

Can we expect to prevent all attacks early enough that they seem hypothetical and don't get announced as attacks? No, clearly not.

I say, our first emphasis must be to preserve our economic potential and military strength, and also to prevent giant human tragedies. We must also work to harden our infrastructure. Decentralise what we can, choose technologies that are less vulnerable.

So if our airlines had all gone bankrupt, that would have been a *good* thing. They are too expensive to run. They use too much oil. They are too vulnerable and make everything else too vulnerable. If we switched to smaller commercial jets that carry a few people or important materials when the urgency justifies the high cost, we'd be better off. Since they haven't gone bankrupt yet, we should work to phase out air travel over the continental US, and reserve it only to get overseas. Develop alternative transportation that takes less fuel and is less vulnerable.

We must protect our ports because if we were to lose a significant number of ports in one day it would cripple our economy. We wouldn't be able to import nearly as much as we do. (If it was bad enough our exports would be cut back too.)

We must protect our communications. Route alternative paths around any key points, build in more redundancy.

We must design quick-fixes for interstate interchanges. If an overpass falls onto an Interstate, Interstate traffic has to be routed around the exchange (assuming there is an exchange there) and the lesser road is blocked. We need to quickly move the debris out of the way and put up a temporary bridge. This is a very unglamorous sort of terrorism, but if for two weeks every commercial truck going from the east coast to west coast gets delayed an hour, it adds up to a pretty big bill.

We need improved methods to monitor the integrity of railroad track. We'll be using railroads more, and we need to continually test them and quickly fix sabotage.

Protection and recovery of our lines of transport and communication must come first. Without those, there could be an attack on populations and we might not know what resources are needed or be able to send them.

Second, we must protect important locations. A major terrorist attack could easily kill 60,000 people in New York City, and severely inconvenience all the others. An attack that killed 60,000 people in Cheyenne wouldn't leave any to be inconvenienced. We must protect our big cities. But also, much of the cost for that protection should be passed on to the companies that do business there and the people who work and live there. If your presence in NYC icnreases the cost of protecting NYC, you shouldn't be there unless you have a very good reason. Whatever companies can be moved, should be moved -- along with their employees and the employees' families. We get a degree of economy-of-scale from large cities, and to some extent we lose that from expensive homeland security. Pass the costs along so they can equilibrate.

Profiling for terrorists might have some minor use, but we can't depend on it at all. The biggest admitted terrorist attack in the USA was by al qaeda. The second-biggest was by a lone american who could not have been picked out ahead of time from a million others. Going after specific terrorists is like having a granary full of wheat and going after specific rats. It's more important to keep *all* the rats out of the wheat than it is to deal with particular rats that got away with something once before.

So OK. In the short run (say, 3 months, long past now) all we could do was to go after known terrorist groups and hope nobody else was gunning for us. This may have had some successes. It's run its course.

In the middle run (say, 3 months to 5 years) we must learn how to better protect and repair and replace our transport and communications infrastructure first, and also protect, evacuate(?), supply, and provide medical treatment for population centers.

In the long run (now and toward the indefinite future) we must attempt to replace vulnerable habits and technologies with alternatives that are less vulnerable. We should severely cut back our air travel, and somewhat cut back on international trade. We must balance the costs to industry of decentralisation versus the costs of presenting a big target. Whatever can be decentralised at small cost, should be.

Ideally we should distribute the costs of security to those who benefit. If the result is that it costs much much more to live or work in NYC than in Cheyenne, we might get some migration of business and employees until the situation equilibrates. Similarly, when we implement new technologies that make us less secure, the users should be taxed to reflect the increased security cost. But I don't know how we could assign those costs in an efficient, apolitical, accurate way.

posted by: J Thomas on 09.13.04 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?