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Red Alert

It was billed as America's front-line defense against terrorism. But badly underfunded, crippled by special interests, and ignored by the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has been relegated to bureaucratic obscurity.

The financial crunch is most keenly felt by the people on the front lines—at ports and borders, among firefighters and hospitals, transit authorities, biohazard labs, and rail hubs—who 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 agencies—the 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 Istanbul.

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 weapons—such as SA-7 portable anti-aircraft missiles, a canister of smallpox, or dirty-bomb components—in 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 the shortage.

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 unfair—and untrue—to 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.

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