Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nailing the DHS Funding Mess

Nicole Gelinas notes the real problem behind the DHS funding isn't that it treats certain landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State building as simply bridges or tall buildings, but that the funding formulas don't take into account human capital that has to be expended on a daily basis. Sure, NYC receives more DHS funding than anywhere else, and that money has been used for all manner of equipment, but the city intends on using it for items that aren't presently addressed - intel gathering to prevent further attacks. Some of that might fall into the heading of overtime, which are costs that aren't reimbursable under the DHS program, but that's a flaw that Congress should rectify:
The real problem is that much of the rest of the nation, with Bush administration encouragement, views DHS as a giant source of free "first-responder" equipment. DHS doesn't encourage local police forces to see the values of human capital: that is, investing in the local human intelligence necessary to prevent attacks.

So states, with input from local officials, apply for neat little funding packages based on proposals to buy capital equipment like superior communications systems to use in responding quickly in a bomb attack, hazardous-materials equipment to mitigate the effects of a biological attack, specialized fire trucks, and so forth.

The idea, in DHS's view, is that each city has a finite need for such equipment - you can only have so many chemical suits. Once a city has bought its equipment, or trained its people, it's done, and the next year, some other city should receive a chance.

In illustrating this point, one remark by Chertoff last Thursday was telling: "After a city gets $500 million, more than twice as much as the next-largest city, is it correct to assume they should continue to get the same amount of money year after year after year after year with everybody else dividing up what remains?" he asked.

New York does spend some of its home-sec money on vital equipment and first-responder training, but it sees the role of the DHS differently: as a source of funds for ongoing intelligence gathering and other forms of threat prevention, carried out in large part by the NYPD. This philosophy requires manpower: more cops, more analysts and more overtime.

In the NYPD's view, it's better to spend $10 million on police informers to learn that Islamists in Brooklyn want to carry out an attack than to buy $10 million worth of chemical suits to respond to the attack.

This philosophy is a direct result of 9/11: Despite the distracting bickering in front of the 9/11 Commission about how New York's chain of command allegedly didn't work well on that day, the best approach would have been to prevent 9/11 before it happened.

So Gotham wants to spend DHS money on programs like its Operation Impact, which trains police officers in counterterrorism tactics and devotes hundreds of officers to protect targets visibly, so that terrorists think New York may be "too hot" for an attack (in the words of a Brooklyn-Bridge plotter Iyman Faris to his al Qaeda handlers). The DHS, conversely, sees such programs as "inefficient," because, by definition, they never end.

This fundamental misunderstanding is curious, because Gotham's approach to homeland security closely mirrors the Bush administration's stated foreign-policy approach to the war on radical Islam: Act now abroad to prevent attacks, rather than act later to respond to them. The DHS's philosophy, conversely, is more like the Clinton administration's: Wait for an attack and then respond.

It's possible that New York will get its home-sec funding back, but for the wrong reason: Chertoff will be embarrassed into restoring it. But until DHS learns that buying human intelligence is at least as worthy as buying haz-mat suits, the money it spends can't make the nation safer.

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