Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 25, 2006

Washington Times misleads on firefighter grants

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on April 25, 2006

The Washington Times published a story over the weekend criticizing the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program:

Fire departments are using Homeland Security grants to buy gym equipment, sponsor puppet and clown shows, and turn first responders into fitness trainers.

The spending choices are allowable under the guidelines of the Assistance to Firefighters grant administered by the Homeland Security Department, which has awarded nearly 250 grants since February totaling more than $25 million out of the current spending pot of $545 million….

In Florida, the Plantation City Council recently voted to use its $28,000 grant for treadmills, stationary bikes and training machines for police and firefighters. The Crawfordsville Fire Department in Indiana is using its $55,000 to buy gym equipment, provide nutritional counseling and instruct firefighters on how to become fitness trainers….

The LAFS for Life program which received a $69,000 grant, partners with the Des Moines, Iowa, fire department to teach fire safety through puppet and clown shows. The Onalaska Fire Department in Wisconsin also has an $8,000 grant for clowns and puppet shows, and Grants Pass in Oregon will use a $22,000 grant to buy an educational robot.

Sounds irresponsible, doesn’t it? Certainly some of these items, such as the educational robot, are questionable. But this story is very misleading, in three key ways:

First, the story fails to provide analysis in context about these grant awards, not noting that the vast majority of recent awards are for worthwhile needs; namely, the basic equipment that firefighters need to do their jobs. Look at the list for yourself.

Second, although these fire grants are administered by DHS, they pre-date 9/11 and have never been intended to focus solely on terrorism-related activities. They’re intended to provide federal support to firefighters for all of their public responsibilities. There has never been an intent to distribute them in the risk-driven way that other homeland security grant programs (appropriately) should be.

Third, the story suggests that the funding for gyms and training equipment is contrary to the program’s original purpose. In fact, the original program guidance in early 2001 states clearly that these grants can be used “for the purpose of establishing and/or equipping wellness and fitness programs for firefighting personnel.”

A responsible story would have included this contextual information about the firefighter grant program.

April 24, 2006

DHS IG report on NW Flight 327

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christian Beckner on April 24, 2006

The DHS inspector general released an unclassified summary of a report on Northwest Flight 327 on June 29, 2004, which aroused extensive suspicion due to the suspicious onboard activities of 14 men during the flight.

The summary says cryptically little:

The Department’s internal system for communicating and coordinating information on suspicious passengers, activities, and incidents in the gate area and aboard aircraft needs improvement. In addition, both the Federal Air Marshal Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have statutory authority to investigate in-flight incidents, thereby causing possible confusion, duplication, and the potential for compromising investigative cases.

We made recommendations to improve the FAMS’ ability to communicate and the Department’s coordination and information sharing.

What’s left unstated is whether the investigators believed that this incident was connected to terrorist planning, or whether the events on the flight were simply a series of odd coincidences.

Update (4/26): A related story from the Washington Times.

DOD and DHS agree on criteria for response roles

Filed under: Homeland Defense,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on April 24, 2006

Sec. Chertoff and Sec. Rumsfeld sent a joint memorandum to President Bush two weeks ago, one which puts forth a common set of principles that the define conditions under which either DOD or DHS should lead the response to a catastrophic event. The memorandum defines the six “key facts and circumstances for consideration in making an assessment,” as listed below:

  • The status of the State and local response. How effective is the initial State and local response, including the use of the affected State’s or States’ National Guard? Have first responders been overwhelmed by the incident? What is the availability of National Guard assistance from other states?
  • Intergovernmental relations. What is the nature of the relationship, skill, and trust among the leadership of the Federal, State (or States), and local governments in the affected jurisdictions?
  • Implementation of the National Response Plan. Has the Governor of the affected State requested Federal assistance or, in the absence of a request, have you invoked applicable Federal authorities to initiate a Federal response?
  • The status of the Federal civilian response. Do available Federal civilian responders, with their contracted support, have the necessary capabilities to deal effectively with the incident? Are they, in fact, dealing effectively with the incident? What are the recommendations of the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense?
  • The involvement of active duty U.S. military forces. Have U.S. military forces – Active, National Guard, and Reserve – been requested by the Governor of the affected State? Is the magnitude of the incident so great that the logistical, transportation, search and rescue, communications, or CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear) capabilities of DoD are deemed to be essential to an effective response?
  • Military-to-military and military-to-civilian relations. What is the nature of the relationships among the U.S. military – Active, National Guard, and Reserve – and the Adjutant General and the Governor of the affected State?

These all seem appropriate, but they still leave a lot of room for subjectivity in this decision-making process. I’d like to know more about which specific types of scenarios would require DOD to take the lead role in response.

Terror attack in Egypt

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on April 24, 2006

Breaking, from the AP:

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Three explosions Monday night rocked the Egyptian resort city of Dahab and there were at least 100 dead and wounded, according to the doctor who runs Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula rescue squad.

Dr. Said Essa said he was headed to the scene of the blasts, one of which hit the el-Mashrabiyah Hotel.

Dahab is located on the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula.

Police officials said more than 20 ambulances and police cars were rushing to the el-Masbat section of the city.

These casualty figures are preliminary; note that Reuters has not yet made any estimates on casualties. It was only last week that Egyptian officials said they had broken up a terrorist plot targeted at tourist sites in Cairo, and these attacks come nine months after a similar string of attacks in nearby Sharm-al-Sheikh.

Update (4/25): Stories on the bombings from the New York Times and Washington Post.

TSA’s personnel policies criticized

Filed under: Aviation Security,Organizational Issues — by Christian Beckner on April 24, 2006

From a Washington Post op-ed yesterday by TSA officer Ron Moore:

In a Dec. 7, 2004, op-ed column, “Training Daze at TSA,” I wrote about my experience as a screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, now BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. I described the difficult working conditions there and the Transportation Security Administration’s failure to meet its obligation to provide ongoing training for its workers.

The day after my column appeared, I was given a trainer who supervised me one-on-one and criticized my every minor misstep. I was told that if I wasn’t perfect on recertification testing, I would be terminated. The recertification process is grueling, but I passed.

A few days later, I received a letter from the TSA giving me 10 days to resolve a $1,200 tax lien problem I had with Maryland that dated to the early 1990s. I hadn’t even known about the problem, because Maryland places such liens as a matter of course without informing the taxpayer.

Although I quickly made arrangements for payment of the lien, which turned out to be partially in error, the TSA terminated me anyway for neglecting the issue in the first place. A manager told me I was considered a bribery risk.

The articles goes on to criticize TSA’s personnel policies, and considers the impact of the lack of workplace protection on employee morale and agency effectiveness.

DHS surveys its regulatory agenda

Filed under: DHS News — by Christian Beckner on April 24, 2006

The Federal Register published the Department of Homeland Security’s “Semiannual Regulatory Agenda” today. It’s useful as a reference document, to get a broad survey of the existing and proposed regulations in the key constituent agencies, and to check on the status of a number of specific high-profile regulations that have been postponed or delayed.

April 23, 2006

DHS inspectors unable to halt bird entry

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

The AP reported today on the fact that agricultural inspectors at airports feel that they don’t have sufficient resources to keep bird flu out of the country:

Homeland Security Department inspectors at U.S. airports don’t have enough training to keep a deadly strain of bird flu from getting into the country, a union official is charging, citing the handling of live birds found in the luggage of a passenger from Vietnam.

Gaps in front-line protections were on display this week when a customs official at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was confused about how to properly quarantine the three cages of birds, Alejandra Scaffa, vice president of the National Association of Agriculture Employees, said Friday. Vietnam is among the nations that have been hit the hardest by the deadly disease….

Scaffa, a Homeland Security agriculture specialist at JFK, said inspectors have gotten only scant training on how to handle possible bird flu carriers. Official guidance generally consists of updates on where the flu has spread, and a 30-minute video that advises wearing protective masks and gloves when dealing with risky passengers or cargo, she said.

“Otherwise, DHS has not done a thing,” Scaffa said.

You know what? The avian flu is going to hit the bird population in the United States soon, irrespective of any improvements to point-of-entry inspections – most likely via the normal migratory paths of wild birds. It’s a waste of scarce resources to take extraordinary measures to try to stop it. Instead, we need to be focusing our resources on preparing for a mutated strain that facilitates human-to-human transmission. Such a straing would be spread globally in days due to modern air travel, irrespective of the current presence of bird-to-human transmission. That’s the real threat, and inspectors should be focusing their training today on the detection of sick people entering the country.

Will TWIC lead to port firings?

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

The AP published a story yesterday on the possible impact of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program on the workforces at ports around the country:

Cargo industry officials are worried that a federal ID system aimed at boosting security could cost many port workers their jobs, something that would bottle up the flow of goods destined for virtually every U.S. community.

Details of the program – more than three years in the making – are still being worked out. But according to industry officials who have discussed it with the Transportation Security Administration and Coast Guard, illegal immigrants and people convicted of certain crimes might be barred from the positions they now hold.

At ports, that could mean thousands of people will be out of jobs, including dock workers and truck drivers.

“Of course there are concerns,” said Chuck Carroll, executive director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, a trade group for terminal operators. “You’d have the same number of boxes but fewer people to move them, and that could mean major congestion.”

Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said a conviction shouldn’t automatically preclude someone from working.

“Just because a guy got into a bar fight does not make him a terrorist,” said Stallone, whose union represents nearly 14,000 West Coast longshoremen and clerks. “Terrorist acts are one thing. But that you beat up your next-door neighbor? I don’t think so.”

The issue in question is the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, a post-Sept. 11 security measure that seeks to better control access to harbors, rail yards, airports and other cargo transit areas terrorists might target. It could affect as many as 6 million people…..

The TSA proposal is expected to include rules similar to those for truck drivers who ferry hazardous materials, according to Carroll; Lisa Himber, who serves on a federal advisory board for maritime security; and Mike Mitre, the longshoremen union’s port security director. They are among industry officials who have discussed the plan with government authorities and confirmed details of the proposal.

The proposal would bar anyone who is on a terror watch list, entered the country illegally or has certain criminal convictions. Among the disqualifying crimes would be offenses related to espionage, terrorism, explosives or “a transportation security incident.” In some cases, workers could be excluded for assault with intent to murder, kidnapping, rape, drug offenses, extortion, robbery and fraud.

I don’t think that the impact of TWIC on the seaport workforce is going to be as severe as this article indicates. It could lead to illegal immigrants being fired, but that’s merely the enforcement of existing law (and something that immigration reform could mitigate). And I would expect TSA and the Coast Guard to set a relatively high threshold in terms of prior criminal history (e.g. murder, rape, large-scale theft). It doesn’t make any sense that a longshoreman who was in a barfight five years ago should lose his job because of TWIC. While there needs to be a way to keep out bad guys and prevent an insider threat, it’s a much more sensible strategy to treat port workers as part of the solution – after all, they are the eyes and ears of the port – then as part of the problem.

I also am hard-pressed to see how this would lead to major port disruptions, assuming that labor agreements allow the port operators and related entities to hire new workers to replace anyone who loses their job. If there isn’t that flexibility, then that’s something that needs to be addressed soon.

New Bin Laden tape

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

The AP reports this morning on a new audiotape from Osama Bin Laden. Walid Phares has posted a rapid-response summary of the tape over at the Counterterrorism Blog. The tape touches on a number of subjects: criticizing the west for cutting off funds to Palestine in light of the election of Hamas, encouraging jihadists to fight in Sudan, calling for a boycott of American goods, and requesting that the Danish cartoonists be “handed over to him for trial and punishment.”

My initial reaction is that tape seems to reflect weakness; bin Laden sounds more like a Chicago ward boss than an ideological, messianic leader. The fact that he needs to make these populist arguments shows that he may be feeling less confident about his level of support in the Muslim world. These two sentences in the AP story reinforce that perspective:

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden is separated from his top deputy and, in a sign he has to be careful about whom he trusts, surrounded by fellow Arabs.

His No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is hiding in a more settled area along the border, also surrounded by al-Qaeda operatives from Egypt, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

If they’re only surrounding themselves with Arabs now, and not trusting the local Afghan and/or Pakistani populace among whom they’ve been hiding for 4+ years, that presents an opportunity to reinvigorate efforts to go after them.

CRS on the legal context of the Minuteman Project

Filed under: Border Security,Legal Issues — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

Another new Congressional Research Service report:

RL33353: Civilian Patrols Along the Border: Legal and Policy Issues, April 7, 2006.

The report provides an interesting overview of the legal and policy context in which the Minuteman Project and similar groups operate. And it summarizes current legislative proposals and legal authorities for civilian patrol activities at national borders.

Congress proposes office of international R&D for DHS

Filed under: Congress and HLS,International HLS,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

The Baltimore Jewish Times had an interesting article last week on a current proposal in Congress to create an office of counterterrorism cooperation in the Department of Homeland Security:

For years, American law enforcement and security experts have been looking to Israel for the latest in homeland security practices. Now Congress is hoping to work with Israel and other at-risk countries to develop science and technology applications to fight terrorism.

Israel advocates are behind new legislation that would create an office within the Department of Homeland Security for counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and its allies. Israel is one of a handful of countries named in the legislation that U.S. officials believe could provide technological assistance….

The bill creates a new office and grant program in the Homeland Security Department that would foster cooperation between research and development communities in the United States and countries like Israel. Also mentioned are the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Singapore.

The bill was introduced by Thompson and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, as well as the chairman and ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on emergency preparedness, science and technology, Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.). It was unanimously approved by the subcommittee last month….

Thompson said the United States would be able to provide seed money for many projects. The bill states that not less than 2.5 percent of the research, development, testing and evaluation budget for the Directorate of Science and Technology at Homeland Security each year should go to international programs.

The bill in question is H.R. 4942, the “Promoting Antiterrorism Capabilities Through International Cooperation Act.”

I’m strongly supportive of the need for stronger international cooperation on homeland security R&D, and it makes sense to require the S&T directorate to enhance its international activities. But I have two concerns with the legislation. First, it makes no mention of the existing DHS Office of International Affairs (located within the DHS policy directorate); that office should have a formal oversight or coordination role for any new international R&D efforts. Second, I think it’s a bad idea for the bill to list specific countries; it makes more sense instead to establish criteria (e.g. NATO or other alliance relationship, country status on export control measures, willingness to match funds) rather than to suggest or prescribe in advance the countries with which the S&T directorate should partner. But other than these two issues, I hope that the ideas in this bill find their way into authorizing and appropriations legislation and are passed into law in the next few months.

CRS takes a historical look at emergency management

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

The Congressional Research Service published a new report last week entitled “Federal Emergency Management and Homeland Security Organization: Historical Developments and Legislative Options.” (Code # RL33369). The report provides a concise overview of the history of emergency management in the US government in the last sixty years, and the factors that led to multiple reorganizations over that period. The authors find four recurring questions in the debate, identify shifts in the favored answers to these questions over time. From the report:

  1. What should be the boundaries or limitations of the matters subject to the jurisdiction of the agency, department, or office charged with the management of emergencies? Should certain emergencies (e.g., nuclear facility incidents, transportation accidents, hazardous material spills) be the jurisdiction of agencies with specialized resources?
  2. Is it necessary to distinguish between natural threats (floods, earthquakes, etc.) and those caused by human action or inaction? Are all attacks on the United States, whether by military action or terrorist strikes, “emergencies” that require a coordinated response from agencies other than the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice?
  3. How should federal policies be coordinated with state policies? What are the boundaries between federal responsibilities and those held by the states under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution?
  4. How should responsibility for new or emerging threats be established? Are federal statutory policies sufficient to enable the President and Administration officials to address adequately the unforeseen emergency conditions?

The report then examines the post-Katrina debate over what to do with FEMA, and summarizes nine different bills in the 109th Congress that propose various fixes to organizational structure of the preparedness and response system. Overall, a very interesting and useful report, and one that is worth reading as this debate moves forward in Congress this year.

HLS in DC, April 24-28, 2006

Filed under: Events — by Christian Beckner on April 23, 2006

Below is a list of homeland security policy events in the DC area next week. I post a list each week and will sometimes update mid-week when I find new items. You can always find current and previous postings under the “Events” category tab at right. And please note that many events require prior invitations and/or RSVPs.

4/24: Migration Policy Institute book event on “A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America,” by Aristide R. Zolberg. 1400 16th St NW, 3:30pm.
4/25: Georgetown University symposium on Identity Management features US-VISIT director Jim Williams and acting DHS Chief Privacy Officer Maureen Cooney, et al. McShain Lounge, McCarthy Hall, 37th and O St, NW, 8am.
4/25: Washington International Trade Association breakfast on port and cargo security. Reagan Building, 1300 Penn Ave NW, 8:30am.
4/25: Press conference with Rep. Peter King, DHS Dep. Sec. Jackson, and CBP Asst. Commissioner Jayson Ahern to demonstrate new Radiation Portal Monitors. Rayburn Building, 11am.
4/25: Document Security Alliance congressional briefing on “21st Century Document Security: An Update on the Battle Against Counterfeiting and ID Theft.” Rayburn 2360, 11:30am.
4/25: Heritage Foundation event on “Securing Our Borders: What is the Administration Doing?” with Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar and Edwin Meese. 214 Massachusetts Ave NE, 12 noon.
4/25: US Chamber of Commerce event, “Secure on Arrival? The Future of American Cargo and Ports.” Features DHS Dep. Sec. Jackson giving keynote remarks. 1615 H Street, NW, 1:30pm.
4/25: House Homeland Security Committee hearing on “The State of Interoperable Communications: Perspectives on Federal Coordination of Grants, Standards, and Technology.” Cannon 311, 2pm.
4/26-4/27: GovSec conference. Washington Convention Center.
4/26: Wilson Center event on “The Outlook for Canada-U.S. Defense Cooperation,” includes discussion of homeland defense cooperation. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, 9am.
4/26: National Criminal Justice Association congressional briefing on “Justice Funding since 9/11: Understanding the Challenges of Fighting Crime and Terror.” Rayburn 2168, 9am.
4/26: Senate Finance Committee hearing on customs reauthorization with ICE Asst. Secretary Julie Myers and CBP Asst. Commissioner Jayson Ahern. Dirksen 215, 10am.
4/26: House Homeland Security Committee markup of the SAFE Port Act. Cannon 311, 10am.
4/27-4/28: 4th Federal Bio-Chem Detection R&D Opportunities conference. Hilton Arlington, 950 North Stafford Street.
4/27: Fedsources’ 21st Annual Federal Outlook Conference features session with DHS Chief Procurement Officer Elaine Duke at 3pm. Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, 7920 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA.
4/27: Government Contracting Institute conference session on “DHS: A Wealth of Contract Opportunity.” Fairmont Hotel, 2401 M St, NW, 11:15am.
4/27: George Mason University forum with Sec. Chertoff. 4400 University Drive, Dewberry Hall, Fairfax, VA. 1pm.
4/27: Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Dirksen 419, 2:30pm.
4/28: State Department release of annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report and country reports on terrorism.

(Please e-mail me if you have suggestions about additions to this list for this week, or future weeks).

April 21, 2006

US-China relations and homeland security

Filed under: International HLS — by Christian Beckner on April 21, 2006

Hu Jintao is in Washington, DC yesterday and today, meeting with President Bush and others in the federal government as part of his first trip to DC. In his remarks at lunch on Thursday, Hu made passing mention of the importance of several homeland security-related issues to the US-China agenda:

President Bush and I also agreed that the two countries need to better increase their exchanges and cooperation in the military, law enforcement, science and technology, culture, education, and other fields. We also both agreed to further step up our dialogue and cooperation in such fields as counterterrorism, nonproliferation, the prevention and control of the avian influenza, energy, environmental protection, disaster prevention and relief, and other major issues.

These comments follow on Sec. Chertoff’s visit to Beijing in late March, where similar issues were discussed, along with port security and the repatriation of Chinese nationals illegally in the United States.

These types of bilateral agreements are relatively shallow today, but I think they will be critical over time for building a global network of homeland security among nations.

The specific interests of the United States and China are quite different today as far as terrorism is concerned. The United States is focused on al-Qaeda and similar global threats, whereas China’s primary focus has been on Uighur separatist groups in Xinjiang.

But in spite of these differences, cooperation is important. The two economies and the citizens of both countries are intrinsically linked. This creates demands for shared solutions in areas like cargo security, immigration, and aviation security, given the reality than an attack in one country could severely harm the economic performance of the other. Over time, so long as the relationship remains generally amicable (obviously not a given), I think we’ll see deepening cooperation between the US and China on homeland security.

DHS IG looks at first responder equipment standards

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on April 21, 2006

The DHS inspector general released a report two days ago entitled “Review of DHS’ Progress in Adopting and Enforcing Equipment Standards for First Responders.” The report looks at the office within the S&T directorate that is responsible for establishing standards, and reviews the office’s slow progress in developing and implementing a standards-setting process for first responder equipment. The report notes progress in developing standards in a few areas, but nothing that resembles a broad approach. It also comments on the fact that no new standards since February 2004.

The report provides four reasons why S&T has been scant success in driving forward a standards-setting for first responder equipment, noting that S&T…

  1. Does not accurately track the status of standards being considered for adoption,
  2. Has inadequate performance measures to establish timelines for completion of its standards adoption process,
  3. Has no regulatory authority to compel first responders to purchase equipment that conforms to S&T standards. Therefore, it must rely on DHS’ Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP) to ensure, through management activities related to ODP’s grants, that first responders procure equipment that conforms to S&T-adopted standards, and
  4. Is not consistently advising ODP on which categories of equipment conform to its standards.

And it makes six recommendations about what DHS can do to improve the standards-setting process:

To improve the process for adopting and ensuring compliance with equipment and communication interoperability standards for first responders, we are making four recommendations to the Under Secretary for Science and Technology to (1) ensure that the S&T standards database accurately captures all relevant data necessary for tracking the status of standards being considered for adoption; (2) determine methods by which the time required to adopt standards can be accelerated; (3) establish quantifiable performance measures to achieve more timely adoption of standards; and, (4) evaluate the DHS-sponsored equipment listings so that they conform to currently applicable S&T standards. Two recommendations are directed for the action of the Under Secretary for Preparedness, to (1) reference DHS informational resources for equipment in all ODP grant guidance disseminated to first responder recipients and (2) mandate that all equipment purchased by first responders, using ODP grant funds, complies with corresponding standards adopted by S&T.

DHS needs to address these recommendations if it is going to maximize the interoperability of first responders in a crisis and ensure that homeland security grant funds are not wasted.

Former DHS IG Ervin starts a blog

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on April 21, 2006

Former DHS inspector general Clark Kent Ervin has made his entry into the homeland security blogosphere, in coordination with the promotion of his forthcoming book, Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack (out in early May). Check it out.

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