Terrorists Target Milwaukee!

Saturday, June 3, 2006

MICHAEL CHERTOFF took control of the Department of Homeland Security calling for a more rational, risk-based allotment of federal resources to prepare for and combat the threat of terrorist attacks. So where is the rationality, and what is the risk, that would justify increasing homeland security grants to Charlotte, Omaha, Milwaukee and Tampa and cutting those to New York and Washington?

Unfortunately, Mr. Chertoff and his team aren't offering satisfying explanations for those funding decisions, which were determined according to a formula -- ostensibly risk-based -- whose details are secret. If there is a sound reason why Louisville's grant has jumped by 70 percent while the Washington area's and New York's have plummeted by 40 percent, we haven't heard it. If there is any sense to rating the risk of catastrophe in Washington in the bottom 25 percent of the nation's cities, while rating the Washington metropolitan area in the top 25 percent, we haven't heard that, either.

The temptingly cynical interpretation is that the changes in 2006 funding are all about pork-barrel spending, but that's probably wrong. Texas is about as red as states get, but homeland security grants to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio have been slashed, in some cases severely, and they are among the nation's 10 most populous cities. Nonetheless, the procedure by which funding was determined -- 17 "peer review panels" composed of representatives from 48 states and two U.S. territories reviewed grant applications -- seems to have ensured that political balance trumped a cool-headed assessment of real risk. That is exactly the problem that Mr. Chertoff correctly identified when he entered office and promised to address.

We take Mr. Chertoff's point that New York has been showered with federal homeland security dollars since Sept. 11, 2001 -- $528 million at last count -- and that has built a lot of security infrastructure there. Ditto Washington, which has received more than $227 million. It is also true that nearly half the Urban Areas Security Initiative grants for 2006 will go to just five metropolitan areas -- New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco -- while the increases for smaller cities are relatively small in dollar terms.

But it remains the case, so far as intelligence experts can determine, that al-Qaeda is intent on carrying out massive, showy, extravagantly lethal attacks of the sort that are possible in Washington, New York and just a handful of other American cities. And in those cities, there are clearly unmet needs; for instance, the District remains without hospital emergency capacity adequate to deal with a major terrorist attack. It seems folly, therefore, to suppose that efforts to safeguard New York and Washington can be eased while attention is turned to a dozen mid-sized cities, let alone to 270,000 potentially vulnerable bits and pieces of officially designated critical infrastructure spread across the nation.

Virginia's Rep. Thomas M. Davis III is preparing to hold hearings to address the funding decisions. Those should provide a forum for Mr. Chertoff and his aides to explain fully what at first glance seems inexplicable.

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