Warning Sounded Over Security Spending Plan

Times Staff Writer

There are growing signs that, contrary to pronouncements of top administration officials, President Bush's budget for the next fiscal year will include comparatively little new money for homeland security and nowhere near what many experts say is needed to minimize chances of another terrorist attack.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said last week that the president will seek to boost homeland security spending by a larger percentage than any other category in the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.

But aides acknowledged that this includes a substantial chunk of Defense Department spending, a category that independent analysts assert does little to directly bolster the security of Americans at home and work.

Even at face value, the officials' comments suggest that the White House is preparing to ask for an extra $2 billion to $3 billion for homeland security. That's less than one-third of what a recent Brookings Institution study said is needed, and barely one-tenth of what a key official with a bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations task force thinks should be spent.

And the estimate of $2 billion to $3 billion may well be too high. Preliminary figures the White House shared with Capitol Hill suggest that the increase Bush will propose in tax-funded, nondefense homeland security spending -- a key measure of the extra commitment Washington is ready to make -- will be closer to $1 billion.

"The bottom line is that it appears to us we're going to be under-funded is several key areas," said former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who co-chaired the council's task force that warned in October that the nation is woefully unprepared for another terrorist attack.

"It's not even sufficient to provide for the first-responder program in the states. It's not sufficient to provide for border security," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former presidential contender.

For the current fiscal year, which began in October, the president sought $37.7 billion for homeland security, of which $7.8 billion was for the Defense Department for such measures as better security at U.S. military bases. After a drawn-out congressional debate, he appears on track to get that amount.

Daniels said Thursday that the administration's homeland security request for fiscal year 2004 will be "approaching $40 billion," or about $2 billion more than this year. A Ridge aide said the administration will seek an 8% increase, or about $3 billion.

The administration's reluctance to substantially add to homeland security spending appears to reflect two convictions: that such spending could easily become a bottomless pit; and that the most important aspect of protecting the homeland is attacking terrorists abroad, which is paid for through the Pentagon budget.

Even so, spending on homeland defense is dwarfed by most other budget items. And at less than $40 billion in the current fiscal year, it is less than half the first-year cost of Bush's proposed package of tax cuts.

Administration officials hotly dispute suggestions that Bush will be stinting in his homeland security request, alternately arguing that the category will be among the most generously funded in next year's budget and that some of the money already being expended has been wasted.

Daniels, for example, said last week that "we have spent billions of dollars protecting against fairly low-level threats and not nearly enough protecting against some of those that are more serious.

"There is no amount of money that could protect every part of America against every conceivable threat."

But independent analysts say that the nation is nowhere near ready to protect itself from even some of the crudest forms of terrorism at a time when the risks of attack are rising with the approach of war with Iraq.

"Are we better prepared than we were on Sept. 11? Yes," said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who heads the Council on Foreign Relations homeland security studies. "But the threat has grown at a greater pace than the protection we've been able to achieve." Flynn said the administration should double federal spending on homeland security next year.

Home-front security and the administration's pursuit of it are all but certain to play a key role in the coming presidential campaign. The contrast between the administration's homeland security spending and its proposed 10-year, $674-billion package of mostly tax cuts intended to spur the economy, is already proving a hot spot.

Bush will no doubt tout his efforts to create a Department of Homeland Security, which culminated Friday with Ridge's swearing-in as its first secretary. Democratic hopefuls such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, and potential GOP challengers like McCain, already have begun to paint the White House effort as inadequate.

"Putting ineffective tax cuts ahead of an effective homeland security reflects a warped sense of priorities," said Peter R. Orszag, an economist and co-author of the Brookings study of security needs.

Administration officials dismissed such comments as political carping and asserted they are doing everything possible to ensure the public is safe. They were particularly adamant that the degree of White House commitment be judged by its spending total for homeland security, including defense.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said, "Any other figure does not accurately reflect what we are doing to protect the public."

But even a cursory look at key elements of the administration's homeland security effort illustrates how slowly Washington is coming to grips with the new threat to Americans. While the government has succeeded in pumping billions of dollars -- what Rudman termed "a fortune" -- into screening airline passengers since the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, it has been much less successful in other areas:

In his budget for the current fiscal year, Bush sought $5.9 billion to improve defenses against biological attack. But with the White House and Congress still not settled on a budget, little of the money has been spent. Officials at the National Institutes of Health, which is set to receive a substantial share, said that any delay beyond the end of January will force them to suspend new research grants.

Although it is not known how much Bush will propose for the next fiscal year, the estimates of the overall amount the administration is seeking for homeland security left some analysts shaking their heads.

"Bioterrorism is a whole new terrain of national security that's going to have the same magnitude of impact as the creation of nuclear weapons," said Tara O'Toole, an Energy Department assistant secretary in the Clinton administration who is now director of a Johns Hopkins University research center. "We should increase spending [on bioterrorism] to $10 billion next year." That alone would require a larger increase than the administration plans to seek for all of homeland security.

Last fall, Congress passed legislation to improve security at the nation's 360 ports, notably including those of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and Bush signed the measure into law. But so far, Washington has provided only about $200 million of the nearly $1 billion that the Coast Guard estimates should be spent immediately for infrastructure. And it is unclear where the balance will come from in the current fiscal year.

"Significantly increased levels of federal spending on homeland security, especially for maritime security, is absolutely essential," said Kurt J. Nagle, president of the American Assn. of Port Authorities, the major ports' trade group.

The president sought $3.5 billion this year to help provide the nation's "first responders" -- its firefighters, police officers and medical personnel -- with new protective gear in case of chemical or biological attack and improved communications. But the Justice Department, which administers one of the key programs, froze new grants in early December after disputes over how to allocate the congressional appropriation.

Even Ridge, who has portrayed most administration efforts to boost public protection as successful, acknowledged the problem. In a news conference Friday following his swearing-in, the Homeland Security secretary said although Washington has been talking to governors and mayors about dispensing the money, "they still haven't seen one dime."

According to a variety of analysts, if the administration's 2004 budget is only a few billion dollars more than the current one, state and local officials are likely to be disappointed even when funds do begin to flow.

"There is no way a budget increase of that size reflects the woeful lack of readiness that this country finds itself in the post- 9/11 world," said Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World