Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have implemented some rather drastic measures to make America safer. But how much safer is it really, and how wisely do these agencies spend their massively bloated budgets?

In March, the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association (CAPA)--a trade association of five pilot unions representing 22,000 commercial pilots-- issued an Aviation Security Report Card that would make any parent burn their honor student sticker. CAPA president Jon Safley lamented "gaping holes" in the system that "require major changes in the way airlines and airports do business and in the way the government manages airline security."

CAPA's main bones of contention--receiving F's on the report card--are:

  • No screening of cargo on all-cargo flights
  • Airport employees, vendors and contractors have access to restricted areas without being screened
  • Inadequate credentialing of employees
  • Lack of self-defense training for flight crews
  • No missile defense systems on planes
Capt. Paul Onorato, CAPA's vice president, thinks some changes would be easy to make. "Some [of the needed reforms] are very simple, like screening the employees. That's really not an expensive proposition," he said, also suggesting a biometric ID for airline and airport personnel as a "commonsensical" measure.

One of the most pressing issues for CAPA is to equip planes with an effective defense system against shoulder-fired missiles. U.S. military planes already have those systems, but passenger planes still lack the technology. In January 2004, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) urged the DHS to take action. Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), he warned, "are probably the greatest danger commercial airliners face in today's world." [For a detailed article on MANPADS, see WWNK of 12/15/03.]

More than a year later, the status quo hasn't changed, mostly due to forbiddingly high costs of $5 to $10 billion a year, according to a 2004 DHS estimate, "a burden that the U.S. commercial air carrier industry cannot bear."

Never mind, says the RAND Corporation, a government think tank, vast improvements in aviation security could be achieved with a relatively moderate investment.

A RAND study released in September 2004 that evaluated a wide range of potential terrorist threats at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) claims that an attack with a surface-to-air missile would have only a 10% chance of succeeding--therefore, an attack with explosives at the terminal, either by a suicide bomber or via an abandoned piece of luggage, would be much more likely.

With a 5% increase in the number of check-in and screening personnel, which would significantly speed up passenger processing and shorten the waiting lines, the number of fatalities from a luggage bomb would be reduced by 80%.

The price tag to save all those lives would be a meager $5 million--only ten times more than what the TSA spent on a luxurious awards banquet at the Washington Grand Hyatt in November 2003. A breakdown of expenses, ordered by the DHS Office of Inspector General, included $1,850 for seven sheet cakes, $1,500 for three cheese displays, and more than $81,000 for awards plaques.

The TSA is in good company, though... and America's Congressmen, sitting in the glasshouse themselves, should be the last to throw stones. Pork barrel spending in the homeland security sector is out of control; this year alone the amount is predicted to reach $1.7 billion. Instead of focusing on securing major cities and hotspots like airports, sea ports and such, Congress decided to scatter the $10 billion allocated for homeland security all over the country--often in rather counterintuitive ways.

"We find that the monies are being doled out not necessarily according to national security risk, but rather, according to political formulas," commented Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a recent 60 Minutes interview.

Tiptonville, Tennessee, a sleepy little town whose county lines harbor ca. 7,900 residents, received $183,000 in federal monies to protect itself from the sinister plots of al-Qaeda's masterminds. Tiptonville "probably isn't on any terrorist map of potential targets," bantered 60 Minutes. "It's not even on the rental car map, and neither is the road you take to get there."

Mayor Macie Roberson, however, believes his hometown may be a high-risk target. If he were an al-Qaeda leader, he says, he'd pick a rural setting from which to plan the next terror attack, possibly on nearby St. Louis or Memphis. Off the 13-page DHS shopping list, he bought an all-terrain vehicle, several defibrillators that are being used at high school basketball games, and protective suits for the entire Tiptonville volunteer fire department.

The town of Converse, TX put its new homeland security trailer to good use by hauling riding lawn mowers to the annual lawnmower races. And thanks to the DHS, sanitation workers in Newark, NJ now ride in air-conditioned dump trucks and the canine corps of Columbus, Ohio's fire department enjoys bullet-proof dog vests.

Other uses for the homeland security windfall include
  • a decontamination unit for $63,000 that no one knows how to use (Mason County, WA)
  • hazardous material suits for $7.2 million (Missouri, one for every law enforcement officer in the state)
  • traffic cones (Des Moines, IA)
  • four Segway fun riders to transport the bomb squad of Santa Clara County, CA, in "the event of a terrorist attack against Silicon Valley facilities"
And who can blame people for taking federal money that's being dropped into their laps?

The landlocked state of Oklahoma, for example, received DHS funds designated for port security. "They have a river somewhere," said Tom Schatz, leader of Citizens Against Government Waste, on 60 Minutes. "And that is included under this maritime security provision that was passed by Congress."

Washington, D.C., admittedly a top terrorist target, has received such a large chunk that it doesn't know what to do with it. Of the $145 million for homeland security, it has so far spent less than 10%, most of it on a new emergency operations center with the newest computer models, 150 cameras that monitor the city and widescreen TVs.

Some of the money, however, has been used to purchase leather jackets for the local police force, and $100,000 was spent on Dale Carnegie courses for the capital's sanitation workers. Why, it's just logical, explained the mayor's office to 60 Minutes: Carnegie's strategies enable garbage truck drivers to "develop the necessary skills to deal with panicky customers in the aftermath of a disaster."

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Posted 04-25-2005 2:45 PM by Doug Casey
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