The nation's homeland security chief said Friday he is increasingly worried about "homegrown" terrorists and will give more help to local police trying to root out such plots.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced several changes in how the government chooses to dole out anti-terror money to major U.S. cities, moving away from what he said was too much "bean-counting" last year that subjected the agency to ridicule.
"This is going to be an amazing admission for a public official. ... I actually listen to people," Chertoff said. "Speaking for myself, I don't believe that I'm infallible or that I have nothing to learn from anybody."
The agency will do several things differently from last year when New York and Washington officials complained that the urban area security initiative had slashed their funding by 40 percent.
DHS will now allow six cities to use some grants to pay for police officers devoted exclusively to anti-terror work, such as increased security measures during a terror alert or investigations into local terror suspects.
One such suspect, Pakistani immigrant and high school dropout Shahawar Matin Siraj, is to be sentenced Monday in federal court in New York for plotting to detonate explosives at a busy subway station — a case that was investigated by the New York Police Department.
Chertoff said that even as governments try to guard against sophisticated worldwide networks like al-Qaida, there is a growing worry about local threats.
"We're very concerned about intelligence-gathering," said Chertoff. "We also know the matter of homegrown terrorism is becoming an increasing concern all around the globe."
Because of that, the six urban areas at the highest risk will be allowed to spend up to 25 percent of their terror grant money on day-to-day police work — provided that work is exclusively devoted to anti-terror efforts.
Those eligible urban areas are: New York and New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C.
The urban-areas grants, giving $747 million to a total of 45 cities, were announced as part of $1.7 billion in federal money for state and local anti-terror efforts.
One of the grant program's biggest critics in Congress, Rep. Peter King (news, bio, voting record), R-N.Y., said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the changes Chertoff described, but he said he will still wait to see what happens when the final dollar amounts for each city are announced later this year.
"I'm going to watch it, but based on the explanation I've gotten, I think it's going to work," said King.
Chertoff also said the agency had scrapped most of a national asset count that was widely mocked last year for treating popcorn factories and hot dog stands as potential terrorism targets.
At one point, the government listed about 200,000 such "assets." This year's version has just 2,100.
"Last year we spent a lot of time with what I perhaps a little bit dismissively called bean-counting," Chertoff said, adding that he wants to focus on the big picture, which is "worrying about how do we protect the most people from the greatest risks most of the time."
Four cities were made newly eligible for funds: El Paso, Texas; Norfolk, Va.; Providence, R.I.; and Tucson, Ariz.
Four others were cut off from the grant money: Toledo, Ohio; Baton Rouge, La.; Louisville, Ky.; and Omaha, Neb.
DHS made one other change, combining New York City and northern New Jersey into a single area under the program.
Chertoff said each region would still receive its money separately, and he bristled at the suggestion that by combining the two, they were destined to see fewer dollars.
"There is nothing about this that suggests New York is getting a cut," Chertoff insisted.
Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., said he wished Chertoff had scrapped the entire process that had led to last year's cuts for New York and Washington.
"There should have been a total house-cleaning, as opposed to just taking out the most egregious parts. New York could still get the short end," Schumer said.
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