WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday increased counterterrorism funding for Washington and New York City but warned that doling out more federal cash to the nation’s largest urban areas would require the virtual elimination of aid to mid-size cities, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and Tucson.
In awarding $1.7 billion in state and local counterterrorism grants and $1 billion in grants to improve emergency communications for police and fire departments, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff again waded into the politically perilous waters of allocating security grants based on risk.
Chertoff acknowledged that the funding decisions would renew controversy over whether security grants are effectively transformed into political pork by congressional interference. But his announcement appeared carefully crafted to tamp down criticism that erupted last year when DHS slashed aid by 40 percent to the two areas hit in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In Washington, funding for the District of Columbia and the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs climbed $15 million to $62 million, a figure that is still 25 percent less than the capital region received in 2005.
Local lawmakers applauded the increase but said it still does not reflect the terrorism risk faced by the nation’s capital. Some of the money will be spent to build a secure regional data communications network capable of carrying information such as maps, an effort that received about $5 million last year. Other priorities include upgrading local and state bomb squads.
New York City received $134 million, a $10 million increase but still 37 percent below its 2005 peak.
Norfolk, Va., El Paso, Texas, and Providence, R.I., were awarded grants for the first time, receiving $8 million, $6 million and $5 million, respectively. Houston, San Diego and Phoenix each received an $8 million boost, to $25 million, $16 million and $12 million, respectively.
“People say, ‘Well isn’t most of the threat, all the threat in New York?’ … The answer is no, it’s not,” Chertoff said in a meeting with Washington Post editors. “If we put all the money there, we’d be inviting people to attack second-level cities.”
Chertoff cited the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the disrupted millennium bomb plot against the Los Angeles International Airport and recent arrests in alleged terrorist plots in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and Trenton, N.J. In last month’s failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, Chertoff noted that terrorist suspects chose both the British capital and Scotland’s much smaller seat of government.
Still, Chertoff acknowledged a significant threat to the top seven cities on the DHS list, which receive $410 million, or 55 percent, of the $747 million in the Urban Area Security Initiative. The cities are New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Jersey City/Newark. The rest of the money goes to 39 other cities.
“If we answer the wish lists of the top tier cities, basically there would be nothing left,” Chertoff said. “Maybe Congress wants to go down that road and say we’re going to put it all in six cities. I think that would be a mistake.”
Cities can use the money to build intelligence “fusion centers” where multiple agencies work together, equip first responders with special gear or set up detection systems such as networks of closed-circuit cameras, among other projects, Chertoff said. DHS is promoting both fusion centers and an expanded surveillance camera program in Chicago, for example, along the lines of systems in New York and Washington.
Separately, Chertoff and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez also announced another $1 billion in grants to cities and states to improve emergency communications. Establishing interoperable communication has been the top security priority of state and local leaders for years. The need was highlighted after the 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Bush administration only this year provided specific funding for the effort and subtracted the amount from other homeland grant programs, which it otherwise has sought to trim.