Sunday, February 20, 2005

Audit Faults U.S. for Its Spending on Port Defense

By ERIC LIPTON
The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has concluded that it has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to protect ports since Sept. 11 without sufficiently focusing on those that are most vulnerable, a policy that could compromise the nation's ability to better defend against terrorist attacks.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars has been invested in redundant lighting systems and unnecessary technical equipment, the audit found, but ‘the program has not yet achieved its intended results in the form of actual improvement in port security.’

In addition, less than a quarter of the $517 million that the department distributed in grants between June 2002 and December 2003 had been spent as of September 2004, the inspector general found. The report also questioned whether grants allocated for small projects in resort areas and some remote locations should have been considered as critical to national security needs as larger projects at ports that are more vital to the national economy.

The findings, released earlier this week, were the latest to criticize the Homeland Security Department's antiterrorism grant program, which has come under attack by people who say it has set poor priorities. For example, Wyoming received four times as much antiterrorism money per capita as New York did last year, according to a Congressional report.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman, citing the department's defense of the port grants that was included in the audit, declined requests for further comment. In remarks included in the audit, a Homeland Security official said the department had taken the higher risk factor of larger ports into account.”

Ninety-five percent of all international commerce enters the United States through its roughly 360 public and private ports. But nearly 80 percent of that trade moves through only 10 ports, with the biggest loads passing through Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland in California and New York. That is why the nation's biggest ports are seen as particularly attractive as terrorist targets. Severely damaging one would not only cause deaths, injuries and property damage, but could also disrupt the flow of many basic goods into and out of the country, port officials say.

Part of the problem, the audit found, is that the annual grants were given out based on applications submitted by individual ports and then awarded even when department staff members found that many of the submissions lacked merit. Instead of withholding money because of a shortage of viable projects, the department disbursed the money to finance dubious security initiatives, many of which are detailed in the 70-page report. The grants are described in some detail, but the names of the winners and losers are not disclosed.

The grant program was intended to limit awards to what were considered strategic ports, meaning terminals that handle a large volume of cargo or a high number of passengers, are next to military facilities, or handle hazardous cargo.

After examining four separate rounds of port grants, the inspector general found that the department appeared to be intentionally distributing the money as widely as possible across the country, instead of focusing it on the biggest ports or on other locations that intelligence reports suggested were most likely to be future targets.

Major ports like New York, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland received large allocations. But smaller grants went to ports in places like St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Ludington, Mich., and six locations in Arkansas, none of which appeared to meet the grant eligibility requirements, the audit said. The department, as a result, "had no assurance that the program is protecting the nation's most critical and vulnerable port infrastructure and assets," the audit said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/20/politics/20secure.html
con·cept: Audit Faults U.S. for Its Spending on Port Defense