One of the many consequences of 9/11 was a massive increase in federal spending to secure our airports, seaports, land borders, critical infrastructure, key government facilities, national icons, and other potential terror targets. Given the nation’s still uneven economic recovery and our ever more dire fiscal condition, the days of unlimited government spending are over, even for the ultimate imperative- securing the homeland. The Department of Homeland Security’s state and local grant terrorism preparedness funding has been cut by $790 million from last year’s level, representing a cut of nearly 25%.Hard choices must be made, and priorities must be set. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is doing just that.
Since 2003 when the Department of Homeland Security opened for business, the department has given millions of dollars in grant funds to states and localities to secure themselves against terror threats. Initially, only seven cities received funding under a program called the “Urban Areas Security Initiative” – New York; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Chicago; Houston; San Francisco; and Seattle. Each of them is likely to be at or near the top of terrorists’ target list because each is a large city with one or more iconic spots. If we know anything about terrorists, we know that they strive to kill as many people as possible and to strike at targets that are evocative of American power or culture.
But, in time-honored Washington fashion, as time has gone by, the number of cities receiving UASI grants has increased to more than 60. Of course, there is some risk that any city, no matter how small or remote, can be struck by terrorists. And, being prepared for a terror attack can make a city better prepared for the far more likely prospect of a natural disaster or the certainty of crime.
But, in these exceedingly tight budgetary times, we do not have the luxury of spreading homeland security grant money around the country liberally on the off-chance that terror might strike in an unlikely place. Funding must be targeted in the same way that terror attacks are targeted – at the largest cities with the most symbolic sites. Accordingly, DHS has announced that this year’s urban grant funding will be allocated to only 31 metropolitan areas, perhaps still too many, but half the total number to date. According to the department, these cities contain half of the nation’s critical infrastructure that is most likely to be targeted by terrorists, and a third of the nation’s assets, systems, and “infrastructure clusters.”
Every state will continue to receive some homeland security grant funding through the State Homeland Security grant program, and there are other DHS grant funds for which they, and cities within them, may apply. So, even smaller cities may have access to funding that they might otherwise have obtained previously from the department’s urban grant program.
Among the treasure trove of intelligence recovered from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound were indications that he was targeting New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Chicago for terror attacks, precisely the cities that logic and experience suggest are at the top of Al Qaeda’s target list. Out of crisis comes opportunity. From the beginning, urban-focused homeland security grant dollars should have been allocated exclusively to those cities most at risk of attack. Now doing so is imperative. Our funding capacity is limited, and, bin Laden’s death notwithstanding, the terror threat remains. If anything, at least in the short-term, we might well see an increase in attempted attacks, both to avenge bin Laden and to show Al Qaeda’s continued potency and relevance. As no less an authority than CIA Director Leon Panetta has put it, “bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda is not.” In the final analysis, an attack “on America” means in practice an attack on an American city, and the cities most likely to be attacked are the ones to which the entirety of applicable counterterrorism grant funding should, and now, must go.