WASHINGTON — There are growing signs that, contrary to pronouncements of top administration officials, President Bush's budget for the next fiscal year will include comparatively little new money for homeland security and nowhere near what many experts say is needed to minimize chances of another terrorist attack.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said last week that the president will seek to boost homeland security spending by a larger percentage than any other category in the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.
But aides acknowledged that this includes a substantial chunk of Defense Department spending, a category that independent analysts assert does little to directly bolster the security of Americans at home and work.
Even at face value, the officials' comments suggest that the White House is preparing to ask for an extra $2 billion to $3 billion for homeland security. That's less than one-third of what a recent Brookings Institution study said is needed, and barely one-tenth of what a key official with a bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations task force thinks should be spent.
And the estimate of $2 billion to $3 billion may well be too high. Preliminary figures the White House shared with Capitol Hill suggest that the increase Bush will propose in tax-funded, nondefense homeland security spending -- a key measure of the extra commitment Washington is ready to make -- will be closer to $1 billion.
"The bottom line is that it appears to us we're going to be under-funded is several key areas," said former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who co-chaired the council's task force that warned in October that the nation is woefully unprepared for another terrorist attack.
"It's not even sufficient to provide for the first-responder program in the states. It's not sufficient to provide for border security," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former presidential contender.
For the current fiscal year, which began in October, the president sought $37.7 billion for homeland security, of which $7.8 billion was for the Defense Department for such measures as better security at U.S. military bases. After a drawn-out congressional debate, he appears on track to get that amount.
Daniels said Thursday that the administration's homeland security request for fiscal year 2004 will be "approaching $40 billion," or about $2 billion more than this year. A Ridge aide said the administration will seek an 8% increase, or about $3 billion.
The administration's reluctance to substantially add to homeland security spending appears to reflect two convictions: that such spending could easily become a bottomless pit; and that the most important aspect of protecting the homeland is attacking terrorists abroad, which is paid for through the Pentagon budget.
Even so, spending on homeland defense is dwarfed by most other budget items. And at less than $40 billion in the current fiscal year, it is less than half the first-year cost of Bush's proposed package of tax cuts.
Administration officials hotly dispute suggestions that Bush will be stinting in his homeland security request, alternately arguing that the category will be among the most generously funded in next year's budget and that some of the money already being expended has been wasted.
Daniels, for example, said last week that "we have spent billions of dollars protecting against fairly low-level threats and not nearly enough protecting against some of those that are more serious.
"There is no amount of money that could protect every part of America against every conceivable threat."
But independent analysts say that the nation is nowhere near ready to protect itself from even some of the crudest forms of terrorism at a time when the risks of attack are rising with the approach of war with Iraq.
"Are we better prepared than we were on Sept. 11? Yes," said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who heads the Council on Foreign Relations homeland security studies. "But the threat has grown at a greater pace than the protection we've been able to achieve." Flynn said the administration should double federal spending on homeland security next year.
Home-front security and the administration's pursuit of it are all but certain to play a key role in the coming presidential campaign. The contrast between the administration's homeland security spending and its proposed 10-year, $674-billion package of mostly tax cuts intended to spur the economy, is already proving a hot spot.
Bush will no doubt tout his efforts to create a Department of Homeland Security, which culminated Friday with Ridge's swearing-in as its first secretary. Democratic hopefuls such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, and potential GOP challengers like McCain, already have begun to paint the White House effort as inadequate.