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9/11: A Decade After

Is Homeland Security spending paying off?

A Decade After The Sept. 11 Attacks, Federal And State Governments Are Doling Out About $75 Billion A Year On Domestic Security. Whether The Spending Spree Has Been Worth It Is The Subject Of Increasing Debate.

August 28, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

"After 9/11, it was literally like my mother running out the door with the charge card," said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Emergency Management Agency in Nebraska, which has received $163.7 million in federal anti-terrorism and emergency aid grants. "What we really needed to be doing is saying, 'Let's identify the threat, identify the capability and capacity you already have, and say, OK, what's the shortfall now, and how do we meet it?' "

10 Years After: Are We Safer?

A key Sept. 11 legacy: more domestic surveillance

Is Homeland Security spending paying off?

The spending has been rife with dubious expenditures, including the $557,400 in rescue and communications gear that went to the 1,500 residents of North Pole, Alaska, and a $750,000 anti-terrorism fence — fashioned with 8-foot-high ram-proof wrought iron reinforced with concrete footers — built around a Veterans Affairs hospital in the pastoral hills outside Asheville, N.C.

West Virginia got $3,000 worth of lapel pins and billed the federal government for thousands of dollars in cellphone charges, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which compiled a state-by-state accounting of Homeland Security spending. In New York, $3 million was spent on automated public health records to help identify bioterrorism threats, but investigators for the department's inspector general in 2008 found that employees who used the program weren't even aware of its potential bioterrorism applications.

In some cases, hundreds of millions were spent on ill-fated projects, such as when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year pulled the plug on the Secure Border Initiative, a Boeing Co. contract that was to set up an ambitious network of surveillance cameras, radar and sensors as a 2,000-mile-long "virtual" barrier across the U.S.-Mexico border. Originally intended to be in place by 2009, the endeavor was plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines and wound up costing $1 billion before it was canceled.

Large sums of Homeland Security money, critics complain, have been propelled by pork barrel politics into the backyards of the congressionally connected. Yet the spending has also acted as a cash-rich economic stimulus program for many states at a time when other industries are foundering.

Utah is getting a $1.5-billion National Security Agency cyber-security center that will generate up to 10,000 jobs in the state. The Pentagon in July launched bidding for a $500-million U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which likes to point out that former President George W. Bush flew here for shelter after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Officials in Nebraska have insisted that no one is immune. A virus dropped at a cattle feed lot could wipe out a big part of the nation's food supply, they point out, while an attack on the dam at Lake McConaughy would cut off the main interstate linking New York and San Francisco and the biggest rail switching yard in the country.

"It would take out Kearney, Grand Island, the power grid, stuff like that. It could definitely do a lot of damage in what I call homeland America, and that's where these guys want to hit," said Ralph Moul, chief of the nearby Keystone-Lemoyne fire department.

Officials here say Nebraska and other places in Middle America not necessarily in Al Qaeda's gun sights have been able to improve traditional emergency response agencies that in many cases were under-equipped and whose workers were poorly trained — a benefit of Homeland Security grants that have required the money to be spent on responses to all kinds of emergencies, not just terrorist attacks.

"I think it's important to understand the homeland security equipment wasn't bought to be tucked away for the day there would be some terrorism event," said Harold Peterson, Keith County's emergency management director in Ogallala.

The Lake McConaughy dive team is so well-equipped it has been called out on several drownings around the state. A radio network built with Homeland Security funding paid off during widespread grass fires earlier this year by allowing departments from around the state to easily communicate with each other. And when a massive tornado struck Joplin, Mo., in May, the city was able to get its phones running with the aid of an emergency communications trailer bought with some of the region's $3.1 million in department grants.

Glendale, likewise, has not left the BearCat in the garage. They haven't caught any terrorists, but last fall, police rolled it out for a pre-dawn assault on an apartment in Echo Park where a suspected armed robber and others were thought to be hiding. Instead of having to pound on the door — risking officers' safety — they were able to park on the lawn and call for surrender on loudspeakers.

"The neighbors may remember it, but the bottom line is, the neighborhood didn't get shot up in a police action, dangerous suspects were taken into custody without incident, and we ensured the safety of those suspects and the officers involved," department spokesman Tom Lorenz said.

Berndt, the emergency official in Nebraska, said he had kept detailed records of every dollar spent and was convinced the state was safer for it.

"For me to sit here and say all this money was spent wisely is for me to sit here and lie to you," he said. "Could we have done better? Yes. Have we done all that bad? Probably not all that bad, in the overall scheme of things."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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