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In this absence of clear direction, homeland security officials approached their mission by identifying key landmarks and other potential targets for attack. That strategy quickly proved problematic when the list ballooned to more than 33,000 sites as every state and region lobbied to include specific buildings, bridges, stadiums, monuments and other structures, federal officials say. The list has been cut to about 1,700 sites, sources say, but it is still too long for any meaningful planning.
Both U.S. presidential candidates advocate the broader use of technology for homeland security, often focusing on similar areas.
"You protect a bridge against what? An airplane, a boat, a bomb? It's not possible to plan for every possible contingency," said Randall Yim, formerly the GAO's managing director for homeland security issues and newly named director of the federally funded Homeland Security Institute. "If we have information about a specific threat, such as one against a particular financial institution, that's one thing. But it doesn't work if you don't have that kind of information, which is most of the time."
Rather than this type of "target-based" approach, as it is known, many security and antiterrorism experts advocate a strategy that can be used in a variety of emergency situations. This means strategies should be based on building certain capabilities instead of on defending against attacks on specific areas.
For instance, homeland security officials could decide that all local communities must be able to survive independently for the first 24 hours after a biochemical attack, until federal help can arrive. Their directive could outline requirements for everything from food and shelter to inoculations and medical care, using formulas based on population.
Similarly, a goal for national preparedness could be set for the first full day after a power grid is shut down. Every state could be required to restore power to a certain level that would allow hospitals and other critical facilities to operate at minimum capacity. Such direction, based on case studies of successful systems around the country, would give local authorities a better idea of how to make technology-purchasing decisions.
"In terms of capabilities, we are the best in the world in a lot of ways--people already have monitors and sensors and vaccines," said a staff member of one House committee that deals with homeland security issues. "The challenge is to wade through the soup where everyone's gadget is a homeland security gadget."
Critics say lawmakers have little incentive to change the target-based approach because it provides pork-barrel benefits that they might not otherwise get. The current budgeting process ensures that all states will get significant grants and government contracts, even though their vulnerability may differ widely.
The Department of Homeland Security guarantees that each state will get at least 0.75 percent of the funds available for grant programs, according to a May report by The Heritage Foundation, a self-described conservative think thank. This system automatically takes up 40 percent of all grants and leaves 60 percent for specific projects identified by the department.
"The formulas that drive the grant process are turning homeland security initiatives into state entitlement programs," the report said. "In this manner, California, clearly a 'target-rich environment,' received only 7.95 percent of general grand monies, even though the state accounts for 12 percent of the nation's population. Wyoming, receiving 0.85 percent, accounts for only 0.17 percent of the population. This translates to $5.03 per capita in California and $37.94 per capita in Wyoming."
The potential for uncontrolled spending will be particularly high this fall, with the dual events of the election and the end of the federal fiscal year, when government agencies typically try to use all the money in their budgets before they expire.
"The last half of September is an absolute feeding frenzy, as vendors swarm contract funds like sharks to chum," said Keith Bickel, chief executive of industry consultancy FedLeads. "A significant portion of IT funding is one-year money that has to be obligated. If it isn't, the agencies lose it, management is questioned about its ability to manage both money and projects, and the agency must negotiate that much harder for future funding."
It is in this chaotic spending environment that mistakes are invariably made. After Carnegie Mellon University received a $35.5 million antiterrorism research grant in 2002, a computer science professor began hosting a Web site that provided bomb-making instructions on the grounds that he was "acting in the public interest" under the First Amendment, according to NBC affiliate WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh.
Washington veterans say many aspects of the nation's homeland security programs and policies are reminiscent of the Pentagon equipment scandals of the 1980s, which produced such icons of government waste as the Navy's $436 hammer and the Air Force's $7,622 coffee brewer. But watchdog groups say today's counterterrorism laws allow the potential for much greater abuse than anything exposed during the Cold War era--with far fewer ways to find out about it.
Revelations of the Department of Defense's liberal spending in previous decades were made possible only with the help of whistleblowers who worked within the agencies responsible for purchases. If today's stringent classified-information policies were in effect at that time, the Pentagon controversies may never have come to light.
That, at least, is the opinion of Dina Rasor, who uncovered the first Pentagon purchase scandals while working at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which she founded in 1981 to expose waste and corruption. "In 20 years of doing this, I have never seen the Pentagon more locked down. There's such a climate of fear," said Rasor, now principal investigator at the Military Money Project, which is sponsored by the National Whistleblower Center.
"Back in the '80s, there were checks and balances. Today, homeland security people have to sign an oath that has more criminal sanctions than ever before for leaking information," Rasor said. "Homeland security procurement is a quasimilitary thing without any checks and balances. It's the DOD's dream come true--the Pentagon unplugged."
She and other investigators point to agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, whose program funding information had been accessible to the public before it became part of the homeland security apparatus. Now, they say, much of its budget has "gone black," or become classified, under the category of "continuity of government"--how federal operations will continue in the event of a catastrophic attack.