2009-02-06 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Getting Homeland Security Right
By Congressman Anthony Weiner

Americans voted for change on November 4 - and no area of our federal government is more in need of a change than our approach to funding homeland security needs.

The problems with the current system are as clear as they are ridiculous. Money spent to provide bulletproof vests for dogs in Ohio, security cameras on water towers in rural Arizona, and a clown and puppet show in Wisconsin. Meanwhile large, urban targets like New York City and Los Angeles, which face the day-to-day expense of dealing with protecting clear targets against real terrorist threats, compete with smaller, rural towns for security resources.

President-elect Obama took a great first step toward changing our approach by nominating Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to be the new head of the Department of Homeland Security. She's a toughnosed leader who understands law and order as well as the managerial challenges of running what has become an unwieldy department.

For her to do a good job protecting America, it's important that the Governor learn the lessons of what worked - and what didn't - under her predecessors. Here are a couple of tips:

Don't Get Hung Up on Formula Spending: By now we have all heard the stories about how Wyoming gets more per capita in homeland security funds than New York does. The problem lies in the politics of giving every state a guaranteed minimum amount. Giving every state homeland security funds, whether they need them or not, is wrong. It simply makes as little sense as giving land-locked states funding for jetties or giving Key West resources for snow plows. It's time we lose the outdated formulas, and use threat levels to determine funding.

Put Boots on the Ground, Not Gadgets in Police Stations. The best tool for localities to prevent terrorism is the same one that prevents other crimes - a well trained cop. Yet the way we fund homeland security prohibits paying for police officers. The result? Spending on nice, sometimes extravagant, but rarely essential, devices and gadgets or projects that don't pass the smell test. For example, Holbrook, Arizona, with a population of a little over 5,000 people, received nearly $49,000 for security cameras to watch a water tower. Is our homeland more secure because of cameras on rural water towers? The answer is clearly no. Funding for more cops on the ground is a twofer - helps us prepare for the emergency while giving communities additional crimefighting presence.

Open the Books on Spending. Maybe when Governor Napolitano was running the show in Arizona she knew what federal dollars for homeland security where being used for. But for the rest of us who want to measure what works and what doesn't, the homeland security budget has more blind spots than nearly any other part of the budget. Sure, for security reasons, it's smart not to outline specific tactics, targets, or strategies. But we deserve true oversight of an agency that really hasn't had it. Now is the time for the Department of Homeland Security to work with city, state and federal leaders to direct resources where they are needed - not where they are hidden.

Maybe Less is Enough. No one can argue our tax dollars have always been well spent in our on-going effort to protect our nation from another attack. In 2003, only 7 urban areas were eligible for one type of homeland security grants. That number has ballooned to 60 urban areas in 2008. That's just bad policy. I have a bill that would limit funding to 15 areas only. That way we could possibly spend less money overall, but in a more targeted, threat-based way - and be safer.

Terrorist threats are real - and we need a Homeland Security Department that can be trusted to identify targets, plan responses, and take steps to prevent and protect attacks. It's time we stop sending money to phantom threats, and give law enforcement the tools that they need to do their jobs. Change is coming America - and hopefully it means a more secure future.

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