Two years after Congress approved $324 million to help gird the Washington, D.C., area against terrorism, much of the money is unspent or is funding projects with questionable connections to homeland security, says the Washington Post. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks lawmakers gave out money quickly, with vague guidelines. Cash-strapped local and state officials plugged budget holes, spent millions on pet projects and steered contracts to political allies.
The District of Columbia funded a politically popular jobs program, outfitted police with leather jackets, and assessed environmental problems on property prime for redevelopment. Some federal money is buying Prince George’s County, Md., prosecutors an office security system. In Virginia, a small volunteer fire department spent $350,000 on a custom-made fire boat. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments used money for janitorial services.
The Post traced the path of the region’s first wave of homeland security aid from its distribution through its final use, including a review of contracts, grant proposals, and purchasing databases obtained through open records laws as well as more than 100 interviews.
Congress has approved at least $180 million in additional grants to the region, and more is on the way. The region has earmarked at least $63 million for compatible radio systems, long considered critical so rescuers from different jurisdictions can communicate with each other. Police, firefighters, and public health workers have undergone training and are better equipped to handle conventional attacks and weapons of mass destruction. They have more gear to protect them, more ambulances and firetrucks, and more heavy equipment to defuse bombs or locate victims buried beneath rubble.
Critical needs remain unaddressed. Many hospitals are already strained and, without adding beds and personnel, would be overwhelmed if thousands needed medical attention in an emergency. In the capital city, just 400 beds could be freed in a disaster. Some police officers are still waiting for basic protective gear. Public health labs swamped by the anthrax attacks of 2001 have no additional capacity. Most local governments have no efficient way to communicate with residents, like a “reverse 911” system that automatically telephones people at home. There is no comprehensive plan to unite families separated in a disaster.
James S. Gilmore III, a former governor of Virginia who heads a federal terrorism panel, said better priorities must be set for local jurisdictions. “If you simply fund every local desire, the demand for money is going to be so great,” Gilmore said, “that you are going to break the back of the economy, which is exactly what the terrorists would like.”
Some jurisdictions are taking federal money while cutting their own. Maryland reduced aid to local health departments despite repeated warnings from experts that the public health system is unprepared to meet new security challenges. Paul Light, a government scholar at New York University, said, “The problem is we’re not getting a nickel’s worth of extra security.”