War Stories

Homeland Security’s Mystery Money

Why no one knows what we’re spending on domestic counterterrorism.

It’s taken me a while to write about President Bush’s homeland security budget (it was published Feb. 2, along with the rest of his federal budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2005), in part because the document seems designed to take a long time to figure out. Once the codes are deciphered and the crisscrosses untangled, however, the homeland security program turns out to be substantially less than advertised.

The actual budget is about 25 percent smaller than the administration’s press release (and subsequent press stories) indicates. It’s just 3 percent larger than last year’s budget, not 10 percent to 28 percent as the official numbers suggest. Several vital programs—including assistance to state and local governments—have been cut. And the official budget projections for the next five years —numbers that haven’t been reported in press releases or news stories at all—show almost no growth.

The Department of Homeland Security is requesting $40.2 billion for the coming year—10 percent more than the $36.5 billion it got for this year, 28 percent more than the $31.2 billion it received in FY 2003. Those are the official numbers, cited on the DHS home page and reported in many news stories.

However, the DHS is an amalgamation of 22 federal agencies, several of which have nothing to do with homeland security as the term is generally understood (i.e., efforts to detect, prevent, block, or respond to acts of terrorism in America).

Last year, Congress passed an amendment requiring the Office of Management and Budget to break down the budget by missions and functions, starting this year. The resulting analysis, available on the OMB Web site, is a very useful, if obscure, document. It reveals that the portion of the DHS budget actually devoted to homeland security isn’t $40.2 billion, but $27.2 billion. There’s another $3.3 billion from various other departments that weren’t consolidated into DHS—for a total of $30.5 billion.

Comparing apples to apples, this sum represents 10 percent growth over the current year’s $27.8 billion. But it’s only 3 percent higher than the $29.5 billion allocated in FY 2003. (Yes, the budget for the current year, FY 2004, is smaller than the budget for the year before—click here for the details. In that sense, at least, President Bush now has the program pointed in the right direction.)

Still, the key question is not how much we’re spending but what we’re buying. On this score, information gleaned from the budget documents ranges from mixed to vague.

Some of the reported increases are misleading. Funding for the “protection of critical infrastructure and key assets” is said to go up from $12.6 billion to $14 billion. However, it turns out that over half that sum, $7.6 billion, is to protect military bases—a task that’s covered in the Defense Department budget.

Looking again at the official figures—the ones that show the budget going up from $36.5 billion to $40.2 billion—half of that increase is for the “BioShield” program, which is essentially a cash handout to pharmaceutical companies. Bush is asking $2.5 billion for this program next year, up from this year’s $885 million. According to the OMB analysis, $400 million of that amount will “maintain and augment” a stockpile of vaccines in the event of a biological-weapons attack. However, the rest of the money will be given to drug companies as “an incentive to manufacture” the “next generation” of medications. (Italics added.)

Encouraging the production of new vaccines and antitoxins is a good idea. But this program seems to have no oversight, timetables, quality standards, or other strings attached. Its connection to tangible results is so tenuous that the OMB, in calculating how much has really been budgeted for homeland security, makes a point of deducting the allocations to the BioShield program.

Meanwhile, several vital short-term programs are being kept at the same level or cut. The Firefighters Grants Program (to train local firefighters to deal with terrorist strikes) is cut from $746 million to $500 million. The Federal Air Marshal Service is cut from $640 million to $613 million. The Aviation Passenger Screening Program is flat (at $1.5 billion). Ditto for Border Patrol ($1.8 billion) and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center ($200 million). The Metropolitan Medical Response System, which had received $50 million each of the last two years, has been eliminated. (It’s conceivable that the program has been renamed or subsumed under a different title, but Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has formally asked the administration to explain the zeroing—and has received no response.)

There are some positive signs. Money for the Container Security Initiative, the international program to increase inspections of cargo containers, is more than doubled from $62 million to $126 million. Programs for sharing intelligence information are up from $269 million to $475 million. Domestic counterterrorism funding is up from $3 billion to $3.4 billion.

However, the budget documents from DHS and OMB offer little detail on how this additional money will be spent. All other federal departments (except the CIA, which is secret from top to bottom) submit detailed budgets with line items spelling out how they plan to allocate their resources. For instance, in the military budget, under “aircraft procurement,” you learn how much money is being requested for the F-18, the F-22, the F-117, etc.—and not only for the planes themselves, but also for their spare parts, munitions, and so forth. If the Pentagon treated budgetary matters the way DHS does, it would submit a total sum for “aircraft procurement” and nothing more.

The problem with doing budgets this way is that nobody on the outside, including Congress, can evaluate the program or its priorities. How seriously are Bush officials taking the threat? How competently are they dealing with it? Should we be spending more on this aspect of the program, less on that aspect? These are basic questions that congressional committees are designed to address. Right now, neither they nor the rest of us have enough information to ask the questions, much less answer them.