Security At Any Price?
Homeland protection isn't just Job 1 in Washington; it's more like a big old government ATM
Not too long ago--perhaps as late as Sept. 10, 2001--the term "homeland security" would have drawn blank stares from most Americans. But the terrorist attacks changed all that, probably forever. Today, a quick Google search of the term "homeland security" draws more than 40 million hits.
Even as bodies were still being recovered from the rubble of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the concept of protecting the American homeland from terrorists turned into an urgent priority--perhaps the top priority--for the federal government. In March 2003, 22 different federal agencies were merged into a massive new cabinet-level entity called the Department of Homeland Security. It was the single largest reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, in 1947. Since then, vast oceans of money have been spent in the name of homeland security.
But what has it bought, exactly? A variety of studies have generally concluded that we are safer today, that homeland security initiatives have made a difference. Loopholes have been closed, security tightened. But those same studies and reports have also revealed a host of problems, many depressingly familiar to veteran government watchdogs. In Washington, following the money can be a particularly dispiriting enterprise. Five years ago, in fiscal year 2000, Washington spent just over $13 billion on homeland security. Next year, the federal government is expected to spend nearly $50 billion--a jump of almost 300 percent. "What we've seen," says Veronique de Rugy, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, "is nothing short of a sea change."
" Your idea." All that money has created the Washington equivalent of a Turkish bazaar. Almost every week, government-sponsored conferences lure all kinds of businesses with hopeful slogans about protection and security. One such conference, back in February, boasted on its website, "It could be your idea that helps shape the priorities for securing our country." In April, at a technology convention, dozens of exhibitors jammed into a corner of the Washington, D.C., convention center dubbed the Homeland Security Pavilion, peddling everything from software that allows first responders to check the FBI's criminal databases on their BlackBerrys to secure ID cards carrying a scan of the iris of an employee's eye. "This whole thing feels very personal and emotional now," said David Chung, director of business development at Fortress Technologies, a wireless security company in Oldsmar, Fla. "All our work-- all this activity --could ultimately go toward saving someone's life."
That there is a hive of activity is without question. In fiscal year 2004, the Department of Homeland Security approved $9 billion in contracts, and in the current fiscal year, it will award $11 billion. This summer, companies will compete for the American Shield Initiative, a contract that will increase the number of ground sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles at U.S. borders. Estimated price tag: $2.5 billion. The U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology, or U.S. Visit, a program that collects fingerprints and photographs of international visitors, is expected to cost up to $10 billion; some in Congress are questioning the management of the contract.