Flash: DHS Disputes Al-Qaeda's 5-Star Rating of Two U.S. Cities

By Dana Milbank
Friday, June 2, 2006

Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman was leaving the Chamber of Commerce on H Street yesterday morning when he met one of his subordinates, Tracy Henke, arriving to deliver a speech.

"It's gonna get better," Foresman told Henke, consolingly.

Henke shrugged. "You just roll with it," she said.

Or, more likely, get rolled. Henke, who is in charge of Homeland Security's grant-making, has become a target of ridicule since she announced plans Wednesday to cut counterterrorism money for New York City and the Washington area -- which together have been the targets of 100 percent of al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on American soil -- by 40 percent each.

Adding insult to this injury, Henke's department judged that the nation's capital is a "low-risk" city and that the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building are not worthy of "national icon" status. By contrast, those terrorism magnets of Kansas City and St. Louis -- both by happenstance in Henke's home state of Missouri -- received boosts in funds. Other winners: the horses of Louisville, the cattle of Omaha and five cities in Jeb Bush's Florida.

Sounds dubious? Sorry, you can't see the data Henke used. Classified.

To nobody's surprise, the actions at DHS have brought furious condemnations, most notably from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who wrote in Thursday's New York Post: "As far as I'm concerned, the Department of Homeland Security has declared war on New York City."

Henke seems rattled. Arriving for her speech yesterday to a DHS-backed group called the Citizen Corps, she was a bit out of breath and hurried to the stage, saying "I'm up again." She immediately brought up the controversial grant announcement and appealed to her audience for some love.

"Needless to say, not everybody has nice things to say about me," she said, so "anybody who wants to say something nice, please feel free to do so. You know, it's one of those things where it's occasionally important to have a little bit of that positive affirmation. If nothing else, then I'll have to call my parents, and the reality is they don't give it to me either."

In this time of torment over big-city terrorism funding, Henke opted to recall her small-town upbringing. "People come to Washington and they forget where they came from and they think all knowledge, all information, all good ideas generate in the marble buildings of Washington, D.C.," she argued. "Guess what? Not true. Not true at all. I'm very fortunate, I come from a very small town in Missouri." She said she keeps a sign in her desk that says "Remember where you came from."

Henke has. St. Louis, not far from her hometown of Moscow Mills, gets a 31 percent boost in counterterrorism money under the new formula.

The new DHS plan is advertised as a "risk-based" model, but it came up with almost the opposite conclusions to a Rand Corp. study last year that calculated terrorism risk to 47 cities. Seven of the 10 highest-risk cities in the Rand study will lose funding under the DHS plan; six of the 10 lowest-risk cities in the Rand study will see increases in funds, including such hot spots as Milwaukee and Tampa.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tried to tamp down the controversy in a speech later at the Brookings Institution, arguing that "it's only a reduction if you choose to look at the highest year of funding" -- which happens to be last year. This explanation didn't satisfy, and Chertoff, barraged by questions on the subject, became petulant, saying that "threatening the secretary is not a way to drive funding decisions," and "there's a little bit of the quality of what-have-you-done-for-me-yesterday about some of the criticism."

Foresman, the undersecretary for preparedness and Henke's boss, avoided the controversy as he spoke to the Citizen Corps yesterday. "We have a moment in time where we've got sustained federal funding to states and communities," he told the group.

Sustained? The urban terrorism funds are to be cut 14 percent overall.

Approached by reporters after his speech, Foresman allowed that the new formula isn't just about a city's risk; he said there's also an "effectiveness" score, rating each city on "how well are they able to articulate the application of resources." Washington and New York were, evidently, not as "articulate" as DHS desired. Never mind that the urban grants were supposed to balance out other counterterrorism programs that, under a formula imposed by Congress, give disproportionate money to such strategic hubs as Vermont, North Dakota and Wyoming.

A reporter asked Foresman how he can be sure the new criteria are valid. "Good question," he allowed.

The lady from Missouri entertained no such uncertainty. "I'm happy to defend it," Henke said before her speech, in which she boasted that "we have accomplished a tremendous amount."

Asked later if she expected the uproar, she replied: "There's no getting around the outburst coming. Risk exists elsewhere in the nation and we have done a much better job at identifying, calculating and analyzing that risk."

And besides, she added, "you have sites in Wyoming that have risks associated with them."

It's true: The bison of Grand Teton have lived in fear of al-Qaeda long enough.

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