After the terrorist attacks in 2001, the U.S. government rushed to secure the nation. Billions of dollars were spent to protect Americans with improved passenger screening, bomb-detection machines at airports, radiation monitors at ports and computer networks to identify suspected terrorists at the borders. Government leaders say the nation is safer today. But the government’s internal audits have repeatedly questioned the cost and effectiveness of the equipment and security systems bought from corporations that received a torrent of money under loosened regulations, limited oversight and tight congressional deadlines.
In February, for example, the Office of Management and Budget found that only four of the 33 homeland security programs it examined were effective. In March, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general noted “the lack of improvement” in the performance of passenger screeners. A two-part investigation by the Washington Post documents rising costs and specific flaws in some of the major security systems. U.S. News & World Report explores the same subject this week, describing homeland security as being “like a big old government ATM.” The Post said the contract to hire airport passenger screeners grew to $741 million from $104 million in less than a year. The screeners are failing to detect weapons at roughly the same rate as shortly after the attacks. The contract for airport bomb-detection machines ballooned to at least $1.2 billion from $508 million over 18 months. A contract for a computer network called US-VISIT to screen foreign visitors could cost taxpayers $10 billion, but it relies on outdated technology. Radiation-detection machines worth a total of a half-billion dollars deployed to screen trucks and cargo at ports and borders have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products. “Whenever you try to spend a billion dollars in a hurry, you’re vulnerable to people who…sell you some things that aren’t really well prepared,” said one source.