As Terrorism Threats Increase, Congress Retreats


With concerns over terrorism on the rise after the massacre at France’s Charlie Hebdo, President Barack Obama scheduled a “summit” for next month on how states and localities around the U.S. can do a better job of detecting and combating terror threats.

But in a case of poor timing, just a few weeks before two brothers opened fire on the French weekly magazine known for its satirical cartoons on Muhammad, murdering nine staff members, Congress voted to end funding for the primary federal program that helped state and local law enforcement train its employees in anti-terrorism techniques.

The program is called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program, or SLATT. According to its website, it “is dedicated to providing critical training and resources to our nation’s law enforcement, who face the challenges presented by the terrorist/violent criminal extremist threat.”

Since SLATT started in 1996, it has spent nearly $45 million training more than 140,740 law enforcement professionals, the U.S. Justice Department says. In addition, a “Train-the-Trainer Workshop” has trained about 3,330 law enforcement trainers, who in turn have provided training to more than 258,750 more law enforcement officers. The training got $2 million from Congress in both fiscal year 2012 and 2013, but it was cut to $1 million last year.

The training comes in different forms. One option is a one- to two-day “investigative/intelligence” workshop that provides instruction on a specific topic like “Islamic and Arab cultural awareness, interviewing terrorists, or terrorism finance.”

Why did Congress shut down SLATT? It’s a bit of a mystery, because it happened behind the scenes; but the general answer is that thorough public airings of federal appropriations have largely disappeared in recent years.

In this case, on Saturday, December 13, a lame-duck Congress cleared a $1.1 trillion spending bill covering the entire federal government. Buried in that massive bill was a detailed spending plan for a small part of the Justice Department called the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), which among other things provides funding to state and local entities for justice system improvement.

The Senate version of the bill had included $1 million for SLATT this year, but the House provided nothing. When Congressional negotiators met to reconcile the differences between the two houses on scores of federal programs, the final decision was to wipe SLATT off the books.

There seemed to be no public discussion of this move. In the context of a huge spending bill, one of the few DOJ issues that got any public attention was President Obama’s immigration initiatives, many of which Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to stop.

Also ending up on the cutting room floor when the huge bill passed was a much larger BJA funding pot, the $13.5 million Byrne competitive grants, which one Justice Department official called “one of the most popular programs we have.” The “Byrne competitive” program was the source of funding for many innovative criminal justice reforms nationwide.

While SLATT and Byrne failed, BJA did get considerable funding for many other well known projects, including the Second Chance Act to help former prisoners, the “justice reinvestment” initiative on state corrections reform, drug courts, and “smart on crime” efforts across the justice system.

Typically, the Justice Department, like most federal agencies, asks for much more money than is available in these tight budget times. Congressional committees must consider competing requests from various departments. The subcommittees that decide on DOJ spending also is responsible for NASA, so it must balance proposals on anticrime programs against space exploration, among many other subjects.

In the final analysis, said one Capitol Hill insider who follows spending bills, there was simply less support expressed for SLATT by members of Congress than for many other programs; so it ended up as a low-priority item–and with no money.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) is the senior Democrat on the House subcommittee that reviews Justice Department appropriations. A Fattah spokesperson said, “tough decisions had to be made among many deserving programs under DOJ. Congressman Fattah does not oppose this program; however, the committee was unable to fund the program as it had in previous years.” The top Republican on the subcommittee when the decision was made, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), has retired from Congress.

Congress often changes its mind based on events. Now that terrorism is back in the news, not only because of the Charlie Hebdo attack but the arrest just yesterday of an Ohio man who threatened an attack on Capitol Hill, it won’t be surprising if members of Congress realize what they did and find money somewhere in a special spending bill to keep SLATT going.

Ted Gest is Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments from readers.

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