Sunday, June 04, 2006

'Makes No Sense': Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, on how NY and Washington will be affected by cuts

'Makes No Sense'
Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, on how New York and Washington will be affected by cuts to their counterterrorism budgets.
By Jennifer Barrett

June 2, 2006 - Why did the federal government cut the amount of antiterrorism money allocated to New York and Washington? The Department of Homeland Security announcement this week regarding the national distribution of $1.7 billion in grants has left many analysts puzzled—and, in some cases, angry—over what they see as startling anomalies. The biggest surprise: the two cities targeted in the September 11 attacks both saw their budgets slashed by some 40 percent. New York’s grant was cut from $207.6 million to $124.45 million; the nation’s capital to $46.5 million, down from $77.5 million last year.

By contrast, grants to cities like Louisville, Ky.; Omaha, Neb., and Charlotte, N.C., each jumped by at least 40 percent—to about $8.5 million or more each. Department of Homeland Security officials said the allocation of funds was based on a detailed analysis of an area’s vulnerability to threats and on peer reviews from other local and state officials. Federal officials also said that New York’s application was flawed and that it had not done a good job of expressing its needs.

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett about the effects of the funding cuts—and why he feels the department has declared war on New York. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was your reaction when you learned about the cuts in federal antiterror funds for New York?
Peter King: Absolute disbelief. In my worst nightmare, I couldn’t envision that, especially since [Homeland Security Secretary] Mike Chertoff has talked about using threat-based funding—not just spreading the money around the country—and [about] the great job that New York City is doing. [New York City Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly has 1,000 officers involved in the antiterror operations. Other cities don’t have anything close.

Have you spoken to anyone at the Homeland Security Department about the funding cuts?
After I heard the news, I got my first call from [Homeland Security] Under Secretary George Foresman.

What explanation did he give you?
He said that, yes, New York City is a main target but that the city’s attitude is that they didn’t want to tell the federal government how they wanted to spend [the funding they would receive].

Is that true?
The city submitted a plan. And one thing I know for a fact is that there’s not even a hint that New York City has spent the antiterror funds improperly. And the city is one of the quickest to spend the money it gets because of all the antiterror programs already in place. The city knows what to do with the money. Even a year ago, I understand that 40 percent of the federal funds that should have been allocated wasn’t even spent in other cities. This just makes no sense.

What other explanations did you get?
We’re also hearing about these new complicated formulas that left New York City with no icons.

You mean no points of interest?
Yes. It’s absurd. Sen. Hillary Clinton and I are actually going to send postcards to Mike Chertoff of [the] Brooklyn Bridge, Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building, Grand Central ... And it’s not just tourist attractions. You have people who are sitting in jail now because they wanted to blow up the Holland Tunnel [which connects New York City and New Jersey]. Last week, a [Pakistani immigrant] was convicted of trying to blow up the Herald Square subway station [in Manhattan].

Yesterday, in a speech, Mike Chertoff argued that even though funding for New York came down 40 percent this year compared to last year, it really is not so bad if you compare it to the average of the last three grants to the city. The stories keep changing. Then today, I hear that one of the deficiencies in the New York application is that the city faxed it instead of e-mailing it. Even if that were true, that’s the lamest excuse ever. You’re going to let people die because the city used a fax machine instead of e-mail?

You were quoted as saying the Department of Homeland Security has effectively "declared war on New York City." Do you really feel that way?
Yes, this was such a devastating blow. The city has already been attacked twice and suffered so many thousands of fatalities. In my [Long Island] district, we lost at least 150 friends, neighbors and constituents. You walk a few blocks and see street signs honoring firefighters and police officers who were killed on September 11. It is very real to us. And, remember, the only reason that the Department of Homeland Security was set up was because of attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. And now to find out it is taking money away from both New York and D.C., it’s horrible.

As chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, you get access to a lot of top-secret security briefings. Are there any indications that terrorists might be shifting their focus onto cities besides Washington and New York?
Any city anywhere is a potential target. But the overwhelming body of evidence points to New York City. I’ve seen the threat analyses and the charts. New York is far and away the top target.

More so than Washington, D.C.?

How many potential threats specifically cite New York compared to other targets?
It’s hard to say how many. But anywhere there’s a national landmark, there’s a risk. And with New York, it’s almost off the charts.

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has said the city has learned not to rely on federal funding. How much do the city and state contribute to New York’s antiterror efforts?
I think you can make the argument that New York City spends about $1 billion a year. And they get reimbursed by the federal government for about 25 percent of that.

How will the funding cut affect the city’s antiterror plans for 2006?
I don’t want to speak for the mayor or police commissioner but, for instance, Ray Kelly wanted to put in what’s called a "ring of steel"—closed-circuit cameras in lower Manhattan near places like the World Trade Center site, the financial district, city hall, police headquarters and coming out of the tunnels from New Jersey. That will be a big expenditure. Apparently it was not approved. Also the training for antiterror forces will be affected.

Are you planning to appeal for more federal funds for the city?
We have to fight this. I’ll be holding hearings in Washington, D.C., in the next month. I’ve already sent a letter to Mike Chertoff demanding documents about how the decision was made—going into the peer-review panel [that evaluated the applications] and the risk analysis. I want to know who within the department actually approved this.

Do you think the department could reassess this year’s allocation?
It's very difficult to do once the decision has been announced. It’s hard to give money to a city and then take it back. But we’re going to fight this and also look for other sources of income ... You can’t say to New York, "We’ll take care of you this year, but not next year." The war on terrorism is ongoing. In the last session, we got legislation through, overwhelmingly, saying that the funding should be based on threat and risk. Some representatives voted against their own self-interests. Because no matter how you feel about New York, this is a serious issue. New York is a prime target.