Anti-Terror Funds Have Other Uses
By Monique Angle, Daily Press
Virginia - In a Suffolk parking lot, a trailer sits ready for a disease outbreak or a car bomber or some other serious emergency that could bring mass casualties. If the health department needs to set up an emergency lab, morgue or treatment station, the trailer can be hitched up to a vehicle and go wherever it's needed. Homeland security dollars allowed Suffolk to buy the trailer. The city also bought a biological-detection system to test for poisons such as ricin, a potentially deadly powder that causes nausea and serious respiratory problems.
Stockpiled in city and county buildings from Suffolk to Mathews County are gas masks, chemical detectors, and protective gloves and boots, bought with hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money.
Some cities and counties used the money to buy radios and equipment to protect police officers and emergency workers from serious accidents, such as chemical spills or terrorist attacks. But some used the money - within the guidelines of the Department of Homeland Security - to buy extras to bolster general safety that might have nothing to do with homeland security. They bought high-powered lights for crime scenes, courthouse security cameras and bulletproof vests, among other things.
An investigation by the Daily Press - involving examining two years of spending reports and interviewing more than 20 local, state and federal officials, as well as homeland security experts - has found that:
Local cities and counties are following the law on spending homeland security dollars. But the money often isn't used solely to prepare for a terrorist attack but to improve general safety. Suffolk bought special jackets and pants to protect workers from blood-borne diseases, such as AIDS and hepatitis.
Local cities and counties essentially bought the same things, regardless of their size.
The state doesn't analyze or oversee what cities and counties buy, as long as the items meet federal guidelines.
Many cities and counties across the country used homeland security grants to buy supplies and equipment, even if the items had nothing to do with protecting residents from terrorist attacks, said Ivan Eland, a California researcher who's testified on defense issues before Congress.
"They've tried to tie their programs to homeland security because they know if they can, it will get funded," Eland said.
Federal and state officials defend this spending, reasoning that local officials know best how to prepare for a terrorist attack, so they should be the ones to decide how to spend the money. "We looked at it on how can we get the biggest bang for the buck," Newport News Battalion Chief David Layman said. The Fire Department bought equipment that could be used for significant emergencies, not just terrorist attacks.
Smaller cities - such as Williamsburg and Poquoson, which received less money - sometimes bought radio equipment.
Other communities decided to use the money to improve general safety by buying better equipment and protective gear for firefighters and police officers.
In some respects, Eland said, it's more practical for a small city or county to use the money to improve fire departments or police agencies, rather than preparing for an attack that likely will never occur.
"Gas masks that are probably never going to be used at all - that's just wasted money, in my view," Eland said.
In Poquoson, Police Chief Jack White hopes the department never has to use the gas masks that the city bought with homeland security money, but he's glad the city has them. "They can strike anywhere," White said. "They can get their message across just as strong by killing in a small community. It would generate the same publicity."
Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, Suffolk, Poquoson and York, Isle of Wight, Mathews and Gloucester counties received $453,184 total early in 2003. Newport News, Hampton and York County also received an additional grant of $250,000 in 2003, while Williamsburg and James City County shared $250,000 for a grant to buy gas masks and improve training.
On the Peninsula, the Middle Peninsula and in Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, duplication occurred often. All local cities and counties bought gas masks, which often cost more than $265 each.
In Isle of Wight, police officers used $13,000 to buy "tactical body armor," essentially 10 top-of-the-line bulletproof vests, with the word "Sheriffs" embroidered on the edge of the sleeve, according to receipts.
Sheriff Charles W. Phelps said a group of police officers and retired-military residents met and discussed what they thought would best protect those dealing with significant emergencies. They settled on the bulletproof vests, as well as masks, boots, gloves, jackets and helmets.
Hampton bought test strips and a machine to test for things like plague, the bacterial disease that caused millions of deaths in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The machine, which costs about $65,000, can also test for anthrax, an infectious disease caused by bacteria that either enter the skin or are inhaled or ingested.
This year, the Hampton Police Division formed a homeland security unit, which analyzes security data and works with the Coast Guard to secure the harbor. In Mathews County, with a population of 10,000, planners thought that $14,000 was too much to pay for a high-tech screener like the kind used in airports. Then Sheriff Danny C. Howlett learned that homeland security money would pay to improve courthouse security. The system features a walk-through metal detector, two security cameras, keypads and a 17-inch monitor to view bags.
"I feel a whole lot better about security now," Howlett said. "It would have to have been done by hand, when now we can put them in an X-ray."
Eland, the California researcher who studied defense spending, doesn't doubt that Mathews is trying to improve security. But did the county buy the courthouse screener to protect against terrorists?
"It's ludicrous to think a terrorist will attack a rural courthouse in rural Virginia," Eland said. The county also used the money to buy something else that has nothing to do with homeland security - a high-intensity light used at crime scenes to help identify semen stains and DNA material. Some money was used to buy masks and protective coveralls. But Howlett said spending all the money on protective suits or radios wouldn't have been realistic for the rural county.
"The criteria was really strict," he said. "You were looking at spending two or three thousand (dollars) for one radio, using that criteria." Across the country, rural states hired consultants to help figure out how to spend their share of homeland security money. One of those firms, Virginia-based IFC Consulting, is helping create homeland security exercises in Nebraska.
"Many exercises simulate an actual event," IFC Vice President Michael Armstrong said. "They train on how to respond effectively and immediately."
But Eland argued that the money should go to protect significant U.S. targets, not rural areas. Eland said terrorists often struck the same target twice, such as the World Trade Center; seek out symbolic landmarks; or hit congested areas where the body count would be highest.
"If it is done on the basis of threat," Eland said, "small towns wouldn't be getting money at all."