Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 2, 2006

UASI grant decisions: garbage in, garbage out?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Risk Assessment,State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 2, 2006

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security announced the FY 2006 state & local homeland security grant allocations, an announcement that provoked an immediate firestorm of anger in New York City and Washington, DC, due to the drastic funding cuts to the two cities that were attacked on 9/11. Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) said that DHS had “declared war on New York,” and today noted (acc. to CQ) that his conversation with DHS Under Secretary George Foresman was “the most heated conversation I’ve ever had with an appointed official” and that he “smelled incompetency” and DHS middle-managers were “phonies.” An editorial in the New York Daily News called for Sec. Chertoff to be fired.


That firestorm continued to grow today, coming to a boil at an event at the Brookings Institution on homeland security at which Sec. Chertoff was speaking this afternoon. I attended the event, and a large share of his prepared remarks were a defense of these grant allocation decisions. His key argument was that last year’s funding of $207 million for NYC was a “make-up year” for 2004, when NYC received only $47 million – and the new funding level of $125 million was not a cut, but a regression to the mean.

But Chertoff was called to task by a reporter to explain the one-page memorandum that was sent to New York explaining its funding cut – a memo that states that there are zero “national monuments and icons” in New York City – a pronouncement that has raised the ire of New Yorkers (but also inspired some humor). Chertoff tried to rationalize the decision, stating that key icons like the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building were counted in different categories, but his defense on this point was unconvincing. At the very least, it’s a management failure that this memo was sent to NYC officials with a statistic that is so glaringly off-base at face value.

I think this decision on NYC could be another example of the garbage-in, garbage-out (GIGO) problem, which I argued in April was a factor in the decision to cut Las Vegas from the list of high-risk cities. Some of the metrics on the one-page fact memo seem flawed in one way or another; for example, using the “quantity” of various asset types in these calculations fails to quantify their symbolic values, and using the quantity of threat reports from cities fails to account for different levels of discernment across cities about what constitutes suspicious activity.

I don’t think that these decisions were political; if you believe this, then you have to explain why Dallas-Fort Worth’s funding was cut drastically and North New Jersey’s funding skyrocketed. And I think it’s a wise move on the part of DHS to require states and cities to develop detailed spending plans prior to funding, which could have been the cause of NYC’s funding cut; according to news reports, NYC’s funding was slashed in part because of the salary & overtime requests in their proposal. States and cities who were shortchanged are certainly likely to take this process more seriously next year – which can only improve the effectiveness with which these funds are spent.

But I also think that DHS’s processes and methodologies for assessing risk are still immature, and they have become over-fixated on data (cf. Sec. Chertoff’s Mother of All Spreadsheets) of questionable value, and insufficiently focused on the holistic, qualitative elements of threat assessment. You can run the numbers in any which way, but that shouldn’t change the fact that NYC and DC are the top two terrorist targets in the United States – by far – and deserve to be treated as exceptional cases when these funding decisions are made.

Update (6/2): Sec. Chertoff’s remarks at Brookings are now available here. The criticism of DHS continued in Friday’s papers, with one story in the Washington Post noting that Washington, DC was in the bottom tier of risk for the state grant program (which is different from the Urban Area Security Initiative, where the DC region was ranked highly), and another Post story criticizing DHS Asst. Secretary Tracy Henke for favoring her home state of Missouri in the allocation process, and the New York Daily News skewering DHS with the headline “Chertoff His Rocker”. Some of these criticisms might be unfair or out-of-context, but until DHS opens the kimono on the grant decision-making process, it looks like “garbage-in, garbage-out.”

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Comment by J.

June 2, 2006 @ 9:34 am

“You can run the numbers in any which way, but that shouldn’t change the fact that NYC and DC are the top two terrorist targets in the United States – by far – and deserve to be treated as exceptional cases when these funding decisions are made.”

I’ve been meaning to weigh in here and talk about the funding issue, but have been too distracted by work, etc. – usual excuses. But I do directly challenge this whining I hear coming from the pols in DC and NYC. Yes, you were hit nearly five years ago by one particular terrorist group. Time to get over that, and the half-billion dollars that NYC got over that period of time should help. There are a number of extenuating circumstances that ought to be considered when DHS doles out the pork.

1. What’s the real risk of terrorism (domestic or foreign) to any major or minor city as opposed to natural disasters? Should we really be investing millions of dollars into antiterrorism efforts when natural disasters occur more frequently, affect more people, and cost more to clean up?

2. Let’s say for estimates that there are 200 major US cities, and DHS has a billion to spend (they had what, $780 mill?). Roughly, that’s $5 mill per city. Has NYC or DC done a baseline assessment to demonstrate their current capability, their capability gaps, and the costs associated with filling those gaps? Can they demonstrate (other than pointing to 9/11) that domestic or foreign terrorists are targeting them? Are terrorists really carrying around roadmaps of NYC as the mayor claimed, or was that just BS? Tell me where Oklahoma City fits in the DC/NYC mayors’ arguments.

3. Metrics have to be a key here. Maybe DHS doesn’t have the right data yet, but they have two choices – use their gut instincts and award bigger cities with more money, or dole it out based on existing capabilities and true gaps. If the smaller cities make a stronger case that they have needs that are (on the surface) more credible than paying for NYC cops’ overtime, then they ought to get the money instead.

4. Last point. How many cases over the last few years have you seen stories where cities are getting millions in funds and can’t spend it fast enough, or spend it on non-terrorism related (but still related to “emergency management”)? Too many? When we were reeling from 9/11, maybe it was alright to throw buckets of money at the cities. But if we are in for a “long war,” then we need a long-term strategy. That ought to include some degree of responsibility on behalf of the cities to protect their citizens. At the least, they ought to demonstrate an ability to pick up 33-50 percent of the tab, and ask for matching federal funds. This pork-barrel funding process where the city who whines the most, gets the most, isn’t helping anyone.

Comment by Tim B

June 2, 2006 @ 9:58 am

I think we should be severely questioning why DHS can’t present, at least a high level, the methodology for their threat assessment. We need to know how this decision was reached, especially given the track record for patronage at the Department. Publishing the funding numbers enumertes, for all, what you consider high-value targets, so saying that the methodology is “classified” is garbage in my opinion.

Comment by jan henderikse

June 2, 2006 @ 12:15 pm

I akways had the impression that Mr.Chertow cs. have no idea about what they are talking about. I always thought that conservatism is dumb – rock bottom dumb. But Mr Chertow knows what rock bottom in dumness is.: he and Ms Henke. I am scared that such people are running such an important agency.

Comment by Johnny

June 2, 2006 @ 12:52 pm

There is very little analysis or science behind any Bush administration decision. With these guys, everything is political.

On February 18, 2004, over 60 leading scientists — Nobel laureates, leading medical experts, former federal agency directors, and university chairs and presidents — signed the statement at this link, voicing their concern over the misuse of science by the Bush administration.

The scary thing, is that the ignoring of science (and quantitative analysis) is across the board: security, energy, environment, health care, public health, fiscal responsibility. The only analysis the Bush administration does is to realign congressional districts so that republicans are never defeated in future elections. That’s where they apply their science: to staying in power instead of toward improving the lives of Americans.

Comment by J.

June 2, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

Johnny – of course everything is political. The only reason we have 55 WMD civil support teams sitting two per state is because of politics. It sure wasn’t due to any rigorous analysis of threat and desired capabilities.

Comment by Johnny

June 2, 2006 @ 2:46 pm

J. – Science should never be political.

Here’s how it should work: the politicians ask the scientists to conduct an analysis. The scientists come back with their resulst and recommendations. The politicians take the results and do whatever they like, regardless of the results, because they are politicians.

Here’s how the Bushies do it: they tell the scientists to produce a specific result. During the analysis, the scientists come to a different result. Therefore, a political appointee edits the scientific results to conform with Bush’s pre-determined policy. Then the scientists are fired, disbarred, and ridiculed.

That’s what I mean by it’s all politics with these guys — the science is corrupted and co-opted into nonscience (pronounced nonsense) to justify a pre-ordained plan.

Comment by wt

June 2, 2006 @ 3:46 pm

I think that, all things considered, DHS is actually moving in the right direction. The purpose of the UASI grants is NOT to cover ongoing labor and staffing costs, but to enhance the capability of the UASI region to prevent and respond to a terrorist attack. How many times do you re-train the same responders, buy more of the same equipment, and then ensure absurd levels of redundancy 9how many hazmat units does the city need? While they claim something like 10,000 responses for the FDNY hazmat unit, the vast majority are not hazmat but minor things like a car leaking fuel or similar).

Ultimately, the concept is to increase nationwide preparedness. If 30% of the available funding continues to go to the same city to pay overtime and buy more toys (while those low-risk folks in rural America continue to wait 2 hours for a hazmat team to arrive – they don’t matter, though), what are we accomplishing? How are we improving our ability to handle events?

The LETPP funding has more flexibility to fund things like intel fusion, information sharing etc – things that truly hold promise for preventing terrorism. having mobile SWAT units patrol the subway may reduce crime, but probably is of minimal (at best) utility in reducing the risk of terrorism.

Comment by Christian Beckner

June 2, 2006 @ 5:39 pm

J. –

In the 60 Minutes report on the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts back in March, they cited a statistic that NYC has spent nearly a billion dollars of its own money – excluding funds from federal sources – on counterterrorism. If that statistic is correct, then they’re clearly already paying a significant share of the total cost burden to protect the city.


Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Homeland security grants: more GIGO

June 5, 2006 @ 11:32 am

[…] These anecdotes add to the impression that there are serious flaws in the analytical process for homeland security grants – which creates a need for both better data and greater subjectivity (although not politically-influenced subjectivity – which is admittedly difficult) in the decision-making process. […]

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