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Commentary: Here's to Chertoff's Gut

Monday, July 16, 2007

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week that he has a gut feeling a terrorist attack may be coming inside the U.S. sometime this summer. WNYC's Brian Lehrer hopes Chertoff's gut is as off base as his judgment can sometimes be.

Chertoff's gut feeling made national headlines, even though he said there was no specific threat he had in mind. But it didn't make much news just a few days earlier when Chertoff announced this year's urban security grants. Those are the ones that cities get for planning and capital projects.

New York's grant for this year is 134 million dollars. That's eight percent more than last year but still 73 million dollars less than New York's share two years ago, before Chertoff re-jiggered the formula.

And here's the headline stat as far as I'm concerned: New York City gets just 18 percent of the urban security dollars. That means in Chertoff's considered opinion must be that there's an 82 percent chance the next domestic terror strike will come somewhere other than New York. As a New Yorker, I wish I believed it. As Congressman Peter King of Long Island said this week, New York is not just the number one target, nobody is a close second.

Okay, maybe Washington is a close second. But the nation's six biggest cities combined get just 55 percent of the grant money. That's great news for Louisville and other medium-size cities whose urban security grants have gone way up.

But after the car-bombing attempts in London and Glasgow, New York had to pay for stepped up police presence in the subways and other "high-value" target areas. Columbus, Ohio - let's be honest - doesn't have the high value targets, or the expense. And police Commissioner Kelly this week announced a plan to install 3,000 security cameras in lower Manhattan, like the so-called Ring of Steel that helped London police see who last week's terrorists were. That's exactly the kind of capital project the urban security grants are supposed to pay for. Is New York supposed to skimp on that so Wichita can get its security grant pork?

An underlying reason for this: Congress allocates the money for Chertoff's department, so he has reason to spread it around to many districts to keep his funding coalition widespread. But there's a word for that: bloat.

So as we go about our lives this summer, trying to be alert but not afraid, let's hope that Chertoff's gut really is as bad as his carefully considered judgment.

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