10 September 2003
Terrorism's "First Responders" Need Better Intelligence Sharing
House Homeland Security committee chairman outlines
(This column by Representative Christopher Cox, Republican of
California, who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland
Security, was published in the Washington Times September 10 and
is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)
Intelligence for First Responders
By Christopher Cox
The September 11, 2001, attacks drew immediate attention to the
key role of our "first responders" -- the police, firefighters
and emergency medical teams who are the first on any crisis scene.
Subsequently, the nation's attention has also focused on the deficiencies
in information sharing within our federal government, notably the
FBI, CIA and other intelligence community agencies.
These two crucial elements of homeland security are inextricably
linked, because information about an attack that reaches the front
lines of local authorities could potentially reduce its impact
if not stop it entirely.
In the two years since the September 11 attacks, the focus on
first responders has increased awareness that federal money isn't
reaching them where it is needed. But while much of the discussion
has focused simplistically on calls for ever-higher spending, an
even greater problem is that information gathered by counterterrorism
experts at significant taxpayer expense is ignored in the disbursement
The present grant system for first responders is similar to the
one the federal government uses for paving roads and responding
to mudslides. Political formulas based on parity and population,
rather than intelligence on terrorist plans and intentions, determines
where the billions go. Such an archaic approach to the challenges
of international terrorism courts disaster.
In Washington, once it became clear important first responder
needs were going begging, the usual political blame game soon commenced.
The politically expedient course was to demand that the Department
of Homeland Security use the dozens of existing funding formulas
it had inherited from the 22 agencies that were folded into DHS.
Complicated and eccentric as these formulas might be, they were
built by the political class to meet political needs: Thus the
grant formula for fighting fires now serves double duty for homeland
security. But this and other such formulas have nothing to do with
objective measurements of the relative risks of attack.
Inserting intelligence into the equation for our emergency responders
is an area where Congress -- and the Select Committee on Homeland
Security, which I chair -- can and should exert its influence.
If you are to be protected against the next terrorist attack,
local police, firefighters and emergency technicians must be prepared
as never before. They must have equipment and training to respond
to a variety of new threats, as well as to more traditional emergencies.
All sides agree this takes money. And Congress has responded.
Since that terrible day in September two years ago, Congress has
spent more than $20 billion on first responders -- an increase
of more than 1,000 percent. Even for Washington, this is an incredible
amount of money.
But the involvement of such large sums only accentuates the importance
of spending wisely. That means all funds should be disbursed on
the basis of hard-nosed threat assessment. However, current federal
funding for first responders is parceled out among the states with
a guaranteed minimum for every state (presumably, because every
state has two senators). One obvious distortion is that California
receives less than $5 per person in first responder grants, while
Wyoming receives more than $35. The same result obtains in other
large states, including New York.
Equally unjustifiable, however, is that with rare exception the
rest of the funds are allocated only according to population. While
larger population concentrations may indeed be terror targets,
this is a very unsophisticated approach to what should be an intelligence-driven
Small-population farm states such as Iowa can legitimately claim
attention because of their responsibilities for the nation's food
supply. Regions such as Alaska and Wyoming that have few people
are thick with defense assets, energy and other productive infrastructure.
Sorting out these competing claims must be achieved through rigorous
threat assessment, not political tradeoffs.
Just as rickety as the funding formulas, and just as much in need
of reform, is the grant application process for first responder
monies. Currently, applicants are forced to follow a convoluted
12-step process to receive a portion of the money Congress has
already made available. Localities wait months to be reimbursed
for funds they have already been forced to spend by federal mandate.
This outdated grant system results in delays and funding distortions
that do nothing but exacerbate the risks we face.
Expending extravagantly to purchase items we don't need in places
that don't need them most is not "homeland security." It does not
protect those most at risk. Sound threat assessment must be the
basis in determining how to prioritize our first responder grant
Here's how it would work: States, as well as multistate and intrastate
regions, would determine their vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis.
Simultaneously, the federal government would complete and constantly
update its national vulnerability assessment.
States (and regions that develop their own homeland security first
responder plans) would be able to apply directly to the department
to meet their specific regional needs. The department would match
the state and local vulnerability assessments against all the federal
government knows about our terrorist enemies and our national vulnerabilities.
Federal first responder grant assistance would flow to where the
risk is greatest.
With the Homeland Security Act, Congress and President Bush took
prompt and definitive action to break down legal and cultural barriers
to information sharing. Now, the FBI, CIA and dozens of other federal,
state and local intelligence and law enforcement agencies are sharing
data on terrorists and their plans. This is a good start. The grant-making
process for our first responders deserves equally decisive action.
And let's be clear. Our enemies have no political two-stepping
to perform. There is no confusion on their end. They are focused
on one objective only -- to inflict fear and panic on our citizens,
kill our loved ones, destroy our economy and our way of life.
This is no overstatement; there is no need for drama. We can and
we must start to make sense of the way we fund our first responders
-- the men and women upon whom we all may one day rely for our
lives -- if we are to prevail in the war on terror.