By Anne Applebaum
Hardly anyone has seriously scrutinized either the priorities or the spending patterns of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its junior partner, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), since their hurried creation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Sure, they get criticized plenty. But year in, year out, they continue to grow faster and cost more — presumably because Americans think they are being protected from terrorism by all that spending. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that the agencies are making Americans any safer.
DHS serves only one clear purpose: to provide unimaginable bonanzas for favored congressional districts around the United States, most of which face no statistically significant security threat at all. One thinks of the $436,504 that the Blackfeet Nation of Montana received in fiscal 2010 “to help strengthen the nation against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks”; the $1,000,000 that the village of Poynette, Wisconsin (pop. 2,266) received in fiscal 2009 for an “emergency operations center”; or the $67,000 worth of surveillance equipment purchased by Marin County, California, and discovered, still in its original packaging, four years later. And indeed, every U.S. state, no matter how landlocked or underpopulated, receives, by law, a fixed percentage of homeland security spending every year.
As for the TSA, I am not aware of a single bomber or bomb plot stopped by its time-wasting procedures. In fact, TSA screeners consistently fail to spot the majority of fake “bombs” and bomb parts the agency periodically plants to test their skills. In Los Angeles, whose airport was targeted by the “millennium plot” on New Year’s 2000, screeners failed some 75 percent of these tests.
Terrorists have been stopped since 2001 and plots prevented, but always by other means. After the Nigerian “underwear bomber” of Christmas Day 2009 was foiled, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed “the system worked” — but the bomber was caught by a passenger, not the feds. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, was undone by an alert stewardess who smelled something funny. The 2006 Heathrow Airport plot was uncovered by an intelligence tip. Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to explode cargo planes was caught by a human intelligence source, not an X-ray machine. Yet the TSA responds to these events by placing restrictions on shoes, liquids, and now perhaps printer cartridges.
Given this reality — and given that 9/11 was, above all, a massive intelligence failure — wouldn’t we be safer if the vast budgets of TSA and its partners around the world were diverted away from confiscating nail scissors and toward creating better information systems and better intelligence? Imagine if security officers in Amsterdam had been made aware of the warnings the underwear bomber’s father gave to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. Or, for that matter, if consular officers had prevented him from receiving a visa in the first place.
Better still, DHS could be broken up into its component parts, with special funding and planning carried out at the federal level only for cities and buildings that are actually at risk of terrorist attack. Here is the truth: New York City requires a lot more homeland security spending, per capita, than Poynette. Here is the even starker truth: Poynette needs no homeland security spending at all. The events of 9/11 did not prove that the United States needs to spend more on local police forces and fire brigades; they proved that Americans need to learn how to make better use of the information they have and apply it with speed and efficiency.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate.