Tuesday, May 27, 2008

States Chafing at U.S. Focus on Terrorism

States Chafing at U.S. Focus on Terrorism

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Juliette N. Kayyem, the Massachusetts homeland security adviser, was in her office in early February when an aide brought her startling news. To qualify for its full allotment of federal money, Massachusetts had to come up with a plan to protect the state from an almost unheard-of threat: improvised explosive devices, known as I.E.D.’s.

“I.E.D.’s? As in Iraq I.E.D.’s?” Ms. Kayyem said in an interview, recalling her response. No one had ever suggested homemade roadside bombs might begin exploding on the highways of Massachusetts. “There was no new intelligence about this,” she said. “It just came out of nowhere.”

More openly than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks, state and local authorities have begun to complain that the federal financing for domestic security is being too closely tied to combating potential terrorist threats, at a time when they say they have more urgent priorities.

“I have a healthy respect for the federal government and the importance of keeping this nation safe,” said Col. Dean Esserman, the police chief in Providence, R.I. “But I also live every day as a police chief in an American city where violence every day is not foreign and is not anonymous but is right out there in the neighborhoods.”

The demand for plans to guard against improvised explosives is being cited by state and local officials as the latest example that their concerns are not being heard, and that federal officials continue to push them to spend money on a terrorism threat that is often vague. Some $23 billion in domestic security financing has flowed to the states from the federal government since the Sept. 11 attacks, but authorities in many states and cities say they have seen little or no intelligence that Al Qaeda, or any of its potential homegrown offshoots, has concrete plans for an attack.

Local officials do not dismiss the terrorist threat, but many are trying to retool counterterrorism programs so that they focus more directly on combating gun violence, narcotics trafficking and gangs — while arguing that these programs, too, should qualify for federal financing, on the theory that terrorists may engage in criminal activity as a precursor to an attack.

Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, said in an interview that his department had tried to be flexible to accommodate local needs.

“We have not been highly restrictive,” Mr. Chertoff said. But he said the department’s programs were never meant to assist local law enforcement agencies in their day-to-day policing. The requirements of the Homeland Security programs had helped strengthen the country against an attack, Mr. Chertoff said, expressing concern about shifting money to other law enforcement problems from counterterrorism. “If we drop the barrier and start to lose focus,” he said, “we will make it easier to have successful attacks here.”

Local officials have long groused that Homeland Security grants seemed mismatched with local needs and that the agency’s requirements failed to recognize regional differences. After Hurricane Katrina struck Gulf Coast states in 2005, federal authorities demanded that cities come up with evacuation plans, even on the West Coast where earthquakes, not hurricanes, are a threat.

Most of the $23 billion in federal grants has been spent shoring up local efforts to prevent, prepare for and ferret out a possible attack. Because official post-9/11 critiques found huge gaps in communication and coordination, billions of dollars have been spent linking federal law enforcement and intelligence authorities to the country’s more than 750,000 police officers, sheriffs and highway patrol officers. Many Homeland Security-financed “fusion centers,” designed to collect and analyze data to deter terrorist attacks, have evolved into what are known as “all-crimes” or “all-hazards” operations, branching out from terrorism to focus on violent crime and natural disasters.

Intelligence officials assert that Al Qaeda remains intent on striking inside the United States. The Seattle chief of police, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said, “If the law enforcement focus at the local level is only on counterterrorism, you will be unable as a local entity to sustain it unless you are an all-crimes operation, and you may be missing some very significant issues that could be related to terrorism.”

Chief Kerlikowske is president of a group of police chiefs from major cities who said in a report last week that local governments were being forced to spend increasingly scarce resources because, they say, Homeland Security did not pay for all the costs. “Most local governments move law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence programs down on the priority list because their municipality has not yet been directly affected by an attack,” the report said.

Seattle has experienced its own terrorism scares since 9/11, after photographs of the Space Needle were recovered in 2002 from suspected Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. The city had another jolt last year when the Federal Bureau of Investigation sought the public’s help in locating two men “exhibiting unusual behavior” on a ferry. Neither episode proved an actual threat.

In the case of this year’s focus on improvised explosives, the main killer of American troops in Iraq, Homeland Security officials say the attention to the domestic threat stems from a classified strategy that President Bush approved last year that is designed to help the country to deter and defeat I.E.D.’s before terrorists can detonate them here.

The administration is completing a plan to assign specific training, prevention and response duties to several federal agencies, including the F.B.I. and Homeland Security, the officials said. But they also said that state advisers misunderstood the financing guidelines, and that states could also meet the requirement by improving their overall preparedness against a range of undefined terrorist threats.

State officials say the federal government issued the grant requirement without providing any new information pointing to the danger of bomb threats in the United States — an approach they said underscored the glaring disconnect between how states and the federal government view the terrorist threat.

“I.E.D. detection, protection, and prevention is an important issue, and we all need to be looking at that,” Matthew Bettenhausen, California’s homeland security director, said in a telephone interview. But, he said of the grant requirement: “It’s another thing to be so prescriptive; that came as a surprise to many of us states.”

Maj. Gen. Tod M. Bunting, the homeland security director for Kansas, said Washington ran the risk of raising undue public alarm by prescribing such a large part of the grant to bomb prevention.

“A federal cookie-cutter mandate doesn’t work on every state,” said General Bunting, who is also the state’s adjutant general.

Leesa Berens Morrison, Arizona’s homeland security director, said the new federal guidance “absolutely surprised us,” and said state officials were scrambling to comply.

In Massachusetts, Ms. Kayyem regarded a potential grant this year of $20 million in federal homeland security money as too important to pass up, even though she said that technically one-quarter of it had to be spent on I.E.D.’s to qualify for the money. So, Massachusetts officials wrote a creative proposal, pledging to upgrade bomb squads in many of the state’s 351 cities and towns. It also proposed buying new hazardous-material suits, radios to communicate between law enforcement agencies and explosive-detection devices.

But Ms. Kayyem acknowledged that much of the equipment was chosen to serve double duty. Hazmat suits could be useful in the event of a bombing, but would be even more help with accidents that state officials regarded as much more probable, like chemical spills on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The grant was approved by federal authorities, but Mr. Chertoff warned: “There are times when you get so far away from the core purpose that it’s hard to justify the grant money.”

In one effort to crack down on what Mr. Chertoff referred to as “mission creep,” Homeland Security officials last year imposed restrictions on use of a heavy truck by the police in Providence, R.I.

The truck had been bought with federal counterterrorism money, based on a plan that it be used to haul a patrol boat used for port security. But when the Police Department began to use the truck instead to pull a horse trailer, federal authorities sought to draw the line, relenting only after local officials protested in a phone call with Washington, said local and federal officials.

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