Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Nebraska's War on Terror

by Kyle Michaelis
For such a "conservative" state, we Nebraskans sure do love spending other people's money. While I can appreciate our taking in more money from the federal government than our citizens actually pay in because of our immense agricultaral resources and the subsidies that follow from which all Americans supposedly benefit, there should be a flip-side to this where we see fewer federal dollars in other areas.

In this, I don't mean roads and infrastructure, and I certainly don't mean education, but government spending on homeland security would definitely qualify. By any stretch of the imagination, we just are not under the same threat-level as our more populous counterparts. Yet, sure enough, Nebraska counties have been having a field day with federal grant money intened for terror prevention and preparedness. Here's the World-Herald's report on the matter:
Nebraska's 93 counties spent a total of $46.2 million in 2003 and 2004 using federal homeland security grants.

A review by The World-Herald shows that Nebraska counties stocked up on everything from night vision goggles, body bags and portable weather stations to heavy-duty cutting tools, radios, heat-sensing cameras and decontamination showers.

The grants, state officials say, have made Nebraskans safer. "We've made very, very good progress on preparedness," said Gov. Dave Heineman.

The national grant program dramatically expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. It has drawn criticism in three areas:

• First, critics in urban states say too many small counties got money they didn't need because they are unlikely terror targets. Urban critics said more money should go to high-risk cities.

Nebraska, for example, got more than twice as much money per capita in 2004 as California, New York or Pennsylvania. Iowa got roughly double, according to research by a homeland security expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

• Second, some communities spent money for such items as air-conditioned garbage trucks in New Jersey, a Dale Carnegie speaking course in Washington, D.C., and a paging system at the South Dakota State Fair. A House Homeland Security Committee report called those cases of "waste and abuse."

• Third, many counties bought emergency response gadgets that local police, fire and emergency responders have wanted for years but couldn't afford.

"We've had the philosophy wrong, and we've just been throwing money at the problem," said James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. "The best way to make your state safe is to fight terrorism, not to use the money for pork barrel spending."

Recently, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bill that could sharply reduce homeland security grants to rural states, tipping the balance toward urban areas.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said that vote reflected the House's big-state bias. He supports a Senate alternative that would make smaller cuts for rural states.

"If you're not safe in your hometown, you're not safe in the homeland," Nelson said.

Nebraska's spending reports don't include any air-conditioned garbage trucks. Many communities did buy equipment they are likely to take off the shelf for routine traffic accidents, house fires and chemical spills, or for the occasional tornado, grassfire or flood.

Heineman, who was the state's lead homeland security official as lieutenant governor, said dual uses - for terror and everyday emergencies - always were supported by the Bush administration.

Further, Heineman said, spending in rural areas is just as important as in big cities. "It is a nationwide threat, not just a big-city threat," he said...

Prior to 2004, the federal government sent Nebraska a pot of money. The state then gave every county a base payment and a sum based on population.

In 2003, counties could - and did - buy all kinds of emergency equipment. They loaded up on seat belt cutters, binoculars, digital cameras, hand tools, generators, laptops, chemical suits, latex overboots, GPS tracking devices, gas monitors, protective clothing, a semi-trailer truck, and a $6,250 GATOR all terrain vehicle.

Scottsbluff County got a $24,000 bomb response vehicle. Rural Stanton County, about 90 miles northwest of Omaha, got a $36,500 mobile command post. A $150,000 mobile robot for detonating bombs and cleaning up hazards stands ready in urban Douglas County.

"I really can't think of any equipment that's just going to sit and go to waste," said Steve Lee, Douglas County Emergency Management director.

But in 2004, counties competed for dollars based on risk. Local groups identified their needs and applied....

In 2004, Nebraska used $12.2 million - nearly half the year's total - to beef up communications by encouraging counties to buy dozens of radios, radio towers and communications consoles. The goal is to enable fire, police or emergency aides at an event scene to talk to officials statewide, Heineman said....

Cherry County's use of federal grants to buy cattle-related equipment is worthwhile because its chief threat is agri-terrroism...Cows outnumber people there 125,000 to 6,000. So, cattle intentionally infected with something highly contagious, such as hoof and mouth disease, could be catastrophic, said (Eileen) Brannon, the county's emergency coordinator.

"Probably a lot of people don't think anything bad is going to happen here. Those of us who deal with it all the time know there are things that could happen that could be devastating. I guess if we can see those things, the terrorists can, too," she said...

Dakota County homeland security coordinator Pat Foust has a similar explanation. Among numerous emergency response items, the county picked up two special cameras for about $21,000 that can identify hazardous materials in fires or the location of bodies.

After the 9/11 attacks, even if a truck runs into a bridge it raises the specter of terrorism. "We like to think in the Midwest, in the more rural areas, it's just a traffic accident," Foust said. "But we don't know that."

It makes me sick to my stomach but I agree 100% with the otherwise evil Heritage Foundation on this one - this spending bonanza in the wake of 9/11 uses that tragedy for pure opportunism. It is a shameful abuse of the public's trust even if it is hard to blame any one county for taking advantage of this program when everyone else is doing it.

Stanton County spent $36,500 on a mobile command post??? My God, Stanton County only has 6000 residents - HOW DARE THEY COMMITT SUCH WASTE AND FRAUD in the name of Homeland Security?

To be honest, I can understand the spending on Emergency Communications statewide. I can understand the spending on securing the food supply, which is the true threat in rural America. Omaha and Lincoln, meanwhile, have large enough population centers and host large enough events that it makes sense for them to have the technology and equipment to deal with terrorist threats. Aside from these uses, however, this seems to be a long list of one absurdity after another.

There is no such thing as being truly prepared for a terrorist attack in rural America. Heineman and Nelson are fools if they believe there is, though it's far more likely they just don't want to tell Nebraska voters their lives aren't worth twice as much as peoples' in New York City.

Have hysteria and paranoia driven all reason from public policy? I mean, heck, I'd love a pair of night vision goggles myself, but I don't expect the federal government to buy them for me. Seriously, get real people. Do we want to live with crap like this the rest of our lives, or are we going to focus our resources on actual threats so one day we can move beyond this pathetic condition?

Anything could happen. This post could have a secret code in it that is actually a message to a terrorist sleeper cell. Stupid and unlikely, absolutely, but this idea is every bit as feasible as your common pick-up truck accident in rural Nebraska being a terrorist act. What have we become? Even worse, what are we becoming?


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