Griping about federal homeland security money has become a New York tradition since shortly after September 11, 2001. This year, city and state leaders have reason to scream louder than usual: President Bush’s Department of Homeland Security has slashed Gotham’s grant 40 percent, despite New York’s always having been the Islamic radicals’ American target of choice. But lost in the outrage over Chertoff’s risible finding that New York has “zero national monuments or icons” is the real reason for New York’s funding loss: a fatal confusion over what homeland security funds are actually for.

Two years ago, the problem with federal home-sec funds was supposedly pork-barrel politics. When the Republican National Convention came to town in 2004, New York pols, including Mayor Bloomberg, spent the week handing out information to delegates and national reporters to illustrate how Congress’s spending formula hamstrung the DHS into awarding rural cities and towns in places like Wyoming and Alaska far more home-sec dollars per person than high-risk places like New York City.

It proved an effective campaign. Congress fixed that problem last summer, to much self-congratulation. Now, while Congress guarantees that each state gets a tiny minimum of one pool of home-sec funds, the executive branch—that is, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff and his underlings—supposedly allocates the bulk of the funding based on threat, risk, and effectiveness of spending. Under that model, even though small towns represented by powerful Congressmen always will get some DHS sweetener, cities like New York, DC, and L.A. should be shoo-ins for most of the money.

That’s why New York felt slapped in the face when Chertoff announced this year’s grants this week. But the problem isn’t how DHS bureaucrats should categorize skyline icons like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Citicorp Center, both previous targets of credible threats. (the DHS put them in categories like “bridge” and "tall office building," instead of calling them national landmarks.)

The real problem is that much of the rest of the nation, with Bush administration encouragement, views the DHS as a giant source of free “first-responder” equipment. States, with input from local officials, apply for neat little funding packages based on proposals to buy capital equipment like superior communications systems to use in responding quickly in a bomb attack, hazardous-materials equipment to mitigate the effects of a biological attack, specialized fire trucks, and so forth.

The idea, in the DHS’s view, is that each city has a finite need for such equipment: you can only have so many chemical suits. Once a city has bought its equipment, or trained its people, it’s done, and the next year, some other city should receive a chance. In illustrating this point, one remark by Chertoff Thursday was telling: “After a city gets $500 million, more than twice as much as the next-largest city, is it correct to assume they should continue to get the same amount of money year after year after year after year with everybody else dividing up what remains?” he asked.

New York does spend some of its home-sec money on vital equipment and first-responder training, but it sees the role of the DHS differently: as a source of funds for ongoing intelligence gathering and other forms of threat prevention, carried out in large part by the NYPD. This philosophy requires manpower: more cops, more analysts, and more overtime.

In the NYPD’s view, it’s better to spend $10 million on police informers to learn that Islamists in Brooklyn want to carry out an attack than to buy $10 million worth of chemical suits to respond to the attack. This philosophy is a direct result of 9/11: despite the distracting bickering in front of the 9/11 Commission about how New York’s chain of command allegedly didn’t work well on that day, the best approach would have been to prevent 9/11 before it happened.

So Gotham wants to spend DHS money on programs like its Operation Impact, which trains police officers in counterterrorism tactics and devotes hundreds of officers to protect targets visibly, so that terrorists think New York may be “too hot” for an attack (in the words of a Brooklyn-Bridge plotter Iyman Faris to his al-Qaeda handlers). The DHS, conversely, sees such programs as “inefficient,” because, by definition, they never end.

This fundamental misunderstanding is curious, because Gotham’s approach to homeland security closely mirrors the Bush administration’s stated foreign-policy approach to the war on radical Islam: act now to prevent attacks, rather than act later to respond to them. The DHS’s philosophy, conversely, is more like the Clinton administration’s: wait for an attack and then respond.

It’s likely that New York will get its home-sec funding back, but for the wrong reason: Chertoff will be embarrassed into restoring it. But until the DHS learns that buying human intelligence is at least as worthy as buying haz-mat suits, the money it spends can’t make the nation safer.


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