The financial crunch is most keenly felt by the people on the front linesat
ports and borders, among firefighters and hospitals, transit authorities, biohazard labs, and
rail hubswho are invariably understaffed, underfunded, and ill-equipped. Just to properly
outfit emergency personnel with radios that work on the same frequency, and prevent the tragedy
that occurred when firefighters and police at the World Trade Center could not warn one another
of the buildings' impending collapse, $6.8 billion is needed, according to a study by the
Council on Foreign Relations. But not only are first-responder programs slated for large budget
cuts in 2005, the Bush administration and the FCC are considering giving the radio frequencies
earmarked for the public safety communication spectrum to private telecommunication companies,
a $5 billion gift.
The first responders are not alone. Money woes got so bad at DHS this year
that in March the department had to announce hiring freezes at its two largest frontline agenciesthe
Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and the Citizenship and Immigration Service, as the INS
is now known due to a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. (The freeze apparently didn't
apply to DHS's public affairs division, which at the time was advertising a $136,466-a-year
position for the director of an Entertainment Liaison Office in Hollywood, whose principal responsibility
is to make the department look good in the movies.)
Because of the administration's tight hold on the purse strings, the
men and women manning the barricades must often make do with antiquated equipment never designed
for counterterror duties. At the Howland Hook Marine Terminal on Staten Island, I watched Customs
inspectors screen cargo containers for nuclear materials. They were using crude little radiation
detectors that were about the size of beepers, could be set to vibrate or ring, and could measure
radiation spikes on a scale of 1 to 9. A reading of 1 indicated a negligible 7 micro-roentgens per
hour, essentially harmless background radiation. "Nine means run like hell," explained
inspector Bill Henehan.
Customs hastily bought 4,000 of these radiation pagers after 9/11,
at a cost of $1,600 apiece, and then, upon discovering that they were unreliable, issued contradictory
directives not to use them, to use them, not to use them, before finally settling on using them in
tandem with more sophisticated backup detectors.
The pagers have an extremely limited range and are prone to false alarms.
Twice the Staten Island terminal has had to be evacuated because of faulty readings, and in 2002
a ship from Italy was sent back out to open sea under armed escort by the Coast Guard because the radiation
pagers registered Chernobyl-like readings. "It turned out to be a type of ceramic tiles,"
recalls Chief Inspector Kevin McCabe. "They emit natural radiation."
So does granite, certain marbles, cat litter, even bananas. But the
battery-operated pagers cannot distinguish between gamma radiation from cesium or cobalt and
far nastier neutrons blasting from plutonium or weapons-grade uranium-235. After a string of
embarrassing false positives, Washington last year ordered handheld 400 Exploranium GR-135
spectrometers that could identify different isotopes, but as of this summer not all ports and border
crossings had them. "We're working with what we got," shrugged Henehan. "But
I wouldn't say no to a nice reliable portal."
Radiation portals are larger, more powerful, and more sensitive detectors
set up permanently at border crossings, ports, or airports. In 2003, an internal Customs report
spelled out the urgent need for 1,600 of these portals to be deployed nationwide. But the 2005 budget
provides for only 165. "If protecting ourselves from a dirty
bomb isn't a national priority," laments one 20-year Customs veteran, "then
we've completely lost track of what we are supposed to be doing."
Henehan, at least, got his wish. Staten Island's Howland Hook terminal
received the country's first maritime radiation portal last fall, after ABC News reported
that it had managed to send 15 pounds of depleted uranium through the terminal in a container from
Last summer, the Coast Guard invited me to spend a few days at the mammoth
port facilities at LA/Long Beach, the largest in the country. The port handles more than half of
the 5.7 million seaborne cargo containers that arrive in the United States every year. Yet it has
only four of the giant gamma-ray scanners that can detect contraband or weaponssuch as SA-7
portable anti-aircraft missiles, a canister of smallpox, or dirty-bomb componentsin
cargo containers. Essentially oversized versions of the machines used to screen carry-on luggage
at airports, the $1.3 million devices allow inspectors to see through a container's steel
walls. They save time and money, and dramatically heighten security. Yet, in part because only
200 gamma-ray machines have been deployed nationwide, 95 percent of cargo containers still enter
the U.S. without any sort of physical inspection whatsoever. "We have budgetary constraints,"
conceded Robert Bonner, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, when I asked about
Even something as simple as fuel can be a problem for those trying to secure
America's busiest port. Following 9/11, the Coast Guard intensified harbor patrols and
began sending out cutters to intercept and board suspicious vessels before they come into port.
But those extra patrols and missions have been burning up tremendous amounts of diesel. At LA/Long
Beach, Coast Guard captain John M. Holmes told me he was cutting back on his sea marshalls'
boardings of suspect vessels because he couldn't keep up with diesel costs. "At first,
you just open up your wallet," he said. "But after a while you realize, 'Holy crap,
this is costing a fortune.'"
Several weeks after my visit to LA/Long Beach, ABC sent its batch of depleted
uranium through that port. The shipment again got through undetected.
Priorities have shifted in the three years that have passed since 9/11, and both time and complacency are now working
against the homeland security effort. "The momentum appears to have waned," a bipartisan
commission on terror preparedness chaired by James Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia and
former Republican National Committee chairman, concluded in December 2003.
There are signs of the slippage on almost all fronts. FBI monitoring of terrorist
funds, according to the Government Accountability Office, fell behind in 2003. But when the Bureau
put in a request this year for money to hire 80 additional accountants and analysts to track terrorist
funding, it was turned down. Halliburton, meanwhile, is landing contracts in Iraq whose value
is far more than the FBI's entire $5 billion annual budget.
Local municipalities are hurting, too, as monies already earmarked
for counterterror expenditures get snared in red tape. According to an angry September 2003 report
by the United States Conference of Mayors, 90 percent of 168 cities surveyed had not received a penny
of the $1.5 billion designated for them in 2002 under federal security assistance programs. And
when money is being doled out, there doesn't seem to be much logic to the process: Alaska and
North Dakota get twice as much federal antiterror funding per capita as New York. Wyoming gets four
times more than California. Part of the reason for the discrepancies is that DHS has missed almost
all its planning deadlines, including one for a comprehensive vulnerability survey to formulate
priorities for the disbursement of funds.
If things seem a mess at the Department of Homeland Security, it's
not necessarily the fault of the people who work there. They are doing the best they can with the tools
that have been given, and it would be unfairand untrueto say that no progress has been
made since 9/11. A great deal, in fact, has been accomplished in a relatively short time. Skies are
safer, borders are tighter, critical pieces of infrastructure like tunnels and bridges are more
secure. Yet much more could have been done if the Bush administration had given the endeavor its
full political and financial backing. With $150 billion spent on the war in Iraq, it remains debatable
whether the United States is safer because Saddam is gone. Homeland security, however, has undoubtedly
paid a price.