Saner Security

Last month, when the continuing resolution for the 2011 budget stripped the Department of Homeland Security of hundreds of millions of dollars meant to aid state and local security programs, lawmakers on Capitol Hill had an unusual reaction. That is, they didn't have much of a reaction at all.

In past years, the mere suggestion that a president's budget proposal would cut homeland-security funding stirred up the wrath of Congress. In 2008, after the Bush administration proposed cutting grants to firefighters, Rep. Peter King, then the ranking member of the House's Homeland Security Committee, railed against it. "We cannot afford to be cutting back on the numbers of those [grants]," he said. His reaction to last month's cuts was more mild: "There's no doubt that cuts have to be made," he said at a hearing last Wednesday.

King's new attitude may kowtow, in part, to his party's renewed interest in slashing budgets, but it is also part of a gradual shift in homeland-security strategy. After almost 10 years of staving off the fear of another attack on American soil by throwing money around, there were signs, before Osama bin Laden's death, that the country's attitude toward homeland security was becoming a bit more rational.

New security programs started after September 11 were dedicated to making Americans feel safer, and a lot of them involved buying cool stuff. State and local governments used federal money to purchase sturdy radios, computer software, surveillance equipment, hazmat vehicles, and other gadgets. The federal government invested in projects such as the electronic tracking of every border entry and exit with fingerprinting, and a virtual fence that would keep both terrorists and immigrants from entering the country.

Many of these proved both expensive and ineffective, but it took years for the federal government to admit the measures might not be working as well as they could be. The virtual fence, which was supposed to be a network of sensors and cameras that could monitor the border constantly, ate up about $1 billion before Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, decided earlier this year that the program's cost outweighed any benefits. Last month's cut also zeroed out a grant program devoted solely to buying new communications equipment for systems that were supposed to enable radios made by different manufacturers to communicate. That program never quite lived up to its promise.

The most iconic program that the proposal discontinued, though, was the system of color-coded homeland-security threat levels that the Bush administration put in place. This system, too, was surprisingly expensive. Raising the threat level prompted some cities to increase port security, turn on surveillance cameras, and increase patrols on transit systems and in other sensitive locations. But it also represented the pervasive, if nebulous, fear in the country after September 11.

When Napolitano announced in January that the the color-coded system would be retired and replaced with an alert system that warns the public of specific threats, she signaled that it was only worth being frightened when there was a specific danger. This program, the National Terrorism Advisory System, debuted less than two weeks before bin Laden was killed.

Napolitano decided against issuing an NTAS alert in the wake of bin Laden's death. Intelligence gathered from the raid on bin Laden showed that al-Qaeda had been contemplating a September 11 anniversary attack on the country's rail system. Lacking any intelligence about a specific or impending threat, however, Napolitano stood by the decision. Napolitano insisted that only a real threat, based on real information, would warrant a heightened alert.

But far from allaying fears of another attack on American soil, the al-Qaeda leader's death has rekindled our tendency to overreact to vague apprehensions. Napolitano's decision came under criticism from members of Congress almost immediately. Last Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, ranking member of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, asked whether it wouldn't "be prudent to increase the threat level, not to the highest level ... but to acknowledge that we are in a situation where we are at risk." And throughout the week, security experts came out in droves to warn that the country faced the threat of a retaliatory attack from al-Qaeda somewhere, at some time.

The truth is, the vague threat that al-Qaeda could attack our transit system is nothing new. Our transit systems are vulnerable, and the group has claimed credit for attacks in Europe that targeted trains and subways. The Department of Homeland Security already runs a grant program dedicated to transit security, and while it's useful to know that these general concerns and efforts to strengthen the systems are warranted, it doesn't serve our security to heighten people's fears.

One anniversary attack that al-Qaeda was reportedly contemplating involved tampering with rail tracks to send a train flying off a bridge or down a mountain. Much of the homeland-security funding that was cut would not have stopped them. Against this and all other homeland-security threats, gadgets alone cannot protect us. Throwing money at state and local governments is not a long-term solution to homeland security. Smart responses to specific threats might be.

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