Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Feb. 7-13


Flickr image courtesy Jonathan Dresner

Homeland security experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation have warned against allowing anti-terrorism and preparedness grants, handed to states by the billions after Sept. 11, to become “another federal entitlement program.”

Jena Baker McNeill, a policy analyst, and Matt Mayer, formerly an official responsible for grants at the Department of Homeland Security, argued in an issue paper released by the foundation this month that the funds have “done little to contribute to readiness and instead have served as another avenue for pork-barrel spending in Congress.”

As the amount shoveled to states through grant programs for fighting terrorists and catastrophes approaches $40 billion, the pair wants to know when Washington has spent enough or local officials have reached a stage where they can absorb much more of the costs on their own.

Each year that passes, however, means constituents become better at lobbying for additional cash from lawmakers who face reelection. Commentator Josh Filler argued in Emergency Management magazine Feb. 14 that local governments should create what amounts to a new special-interest group, the National Homeland Security Association, for ensuring “that the voices of the urban areas, states and other homeland security officials are heard in the federal policy and budget-making process.”

But Mayer and McNeill say the Department of Homeland Security still doesn't know what new preparedness capabilities states have built as a result of the money, making it difficult to determine when the spigot should be turned off:

What DHS has lacked in grant program accountability, Congress has made up for in politics. Members have routinely used grant dollars directed at their own particular jurisdictions as a way to win votes. … The nation cannot afford to waste scarce homeland security funds on unnecessary capabilities. It is incumbent upon policymakers to begin fixing this broken system.

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Yet another city has announced plans to significantly expand the number of video cameras accessible by law enforcement for surveillance purposes. Cameras aren’t a new story, of course. But recent developments in digital surveillance mark a turn that many corners of the United States haven't witnessed until now.

Authorities want to integrate existing public cameras they already control with thousands more deployed by private businesses, all for viewing in a single center. Last week it was Washington, D.C. This week it’s Atlanta, where officials are using homeland security grants and other funds to construct a special facility for piping in surveillance images. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

[David Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation,] said the center will use software that can identify suspicious activity and guide officers right to the scene of a crime as it’s occurring. In effect, the software will multiply the eyes and ears of the five to seven people per shift who will initially monitor video footage around the clock. ‘Monitoring is somewhat of a fallacy,’ Wilkinson said. ‘Analytics will help control the cameras.’

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An early pioneer of massive integrated camera systems similar to what Atlanta wants is Chicago, and there, civil libertarians are resisting the concept. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois wants the city’s “Operation Virtual Shield,” also funded with homeland security grants, halted until new restrictions that safeguard privacy are written up on the use of cameras. The advocacy group says modern technology has made the cameras more of an invasive threat.

According to Government Security News:

The Chicago cameras have zoom capacity allowing operators to see small objects and features at great distances and at many times their normal size. They are also equipped with facial recognition capabilities that enable computers to automatically search for a particular person’s face.

The ACLU argues Chicago doesn’t have adequate guidelines governing how such technologies are used to observe citizens in public spaces.

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Democratic staffers in the House are complaining that massive cuts in federal spending planned by the GOP “could reduce federal and state capabilities to secure the nation against terrorist and other catastrophic threats.”

A bill prepared by Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio would shave more than $10 billion off the Department of Homeland Security’s budget in 2012 alone, according to a report from Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee.

It concludes that, among other things. reductions would harm the ability of immigration agents to deport illegal border crossers, force the Coast Guard to rely on aging ships and aircraft and undermine the purchase of new screening technologies by the Transportation Security Administration.

The proposed bill would also notably yank $900 million out of the readiness grants DHS makes available to state and local governments. That, according to the report, “would reverse great strides state and local governments have made in enhancing preparedness and response capabilities.”

Heritage’s aforementioned issue paper directly challenges the claims. Mayer and McNeill say House Democrats “should spend less time trying to score political points and more time trying to identify possible homeland security spending cuts.” From Heritage:

If Congress is serious about fiscal responsibility and the ability of state and local governments to respond effectively to threats, it should reassess the current grant structure and spend federal dollars exclusively on projects that actually make America more prepared.

 

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