April 17, 2013

Before Boston, concerns about readiness in Massachusetts, other states

Even before Monday’s deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon, concern was growing about soft targets and the level of counter-terrorism preparedness in Massachusetts and numerous other states

Even before Monday’s deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon, concern was growing about soft targets and the level of counter-terrorism preparedness in Massachusetts and numerous other states

A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General in February criticized Massachusetts, saying it lacked sufficient gauges of effectiveness in its use of federal security money. In recent years, numerous other states whose spending was reviewed by the DHS came in for similar criticism.

DHS Assistant Inspector General Anne Richards testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 19, warning that the security strategies of many states “did not include specific goals and objectives and were outdated.”

The programs the agency audited deal with everything from disaster preparedness to intelligence gathering and training in finding and disabling improvised explosive devices such as those authorities say were used in Boston.

The use of federal money by Massachusetts public-safety officials and leaders in the Boston area is expected to get close scrutiny once the methods and motives of the bomber or bombers are better understood. But inspector general audits of 34 states since 2007 most often reach the same conclusion: Federal money is generally accounted for, but improvement in measuring the effectiveness of state programs is needed.

Richards prescribed the fix this way: “The goals and objectives in these strategies should be specific, measureable, achievable, results-oriented and time-limited.”

In most of the states, which collectively have received more than $39 billion in federal security money since 2002, this wasn’t and isn’t the case.

For example, the inspector general’s 2009 audit of South Carolina’s use of federal money from fiscal year 2005 to 2007 found that “statewide goals and objectives are not measurable, cannot quantify improvement and have no mechanism to measure effectiveness.”

Similarly, the agency’s 2006 audit of North Carolina’s spending of federal counter-terrorism money in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 found numerous shortcomings.

“We noted delays in the expenditure of grant funds as well as limitations on measurement standards to determine the effectiveness or efficiency of North Carolina’s progress in preparing for terrorist incidents,” the report said.

More recently, insufficient measurement standards were cited last year in inspector general reports on Kansas, Georgia and Florida, and on California and Texas in 2011 reports. Richards said in her testimony that Washington state had put procedures in place to measure performance, but had failed to fully use recommended tools for measuring where programs may have fallen short.

On the narrower issue of intelligence gathering, Massachusetts has been ahead of the pack, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Her agency uses state and local hubs, dubbed “fusion centers,” to analyze information on terrorism-related threats in smaller areas. While the effectiveness of these centers varies, she said, Boston had enhanced capabilities.

“Boston was very prepared,” she said, noting that urban Boston has received about $370 million in federal grant funding since 2002 for its response teams.

However, the top Republican on the committee, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, wants the “fusion centers” eliminated on the grounds that they duplicate work already done by Joint Terrorism Task Forces led by the Justice Department and the FBI.

To date, the results of audit after audit by the inspector general’s office argue for improvements at the state level.

“Clearly it’s a challenge,” said Robert Liscouski, the first assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security. He now heads the risk analysis firm Edge 360, and advises state and local governments on how to best protect against threats.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said, police departments across the nation and especially in large cities had to evolve from pure law enforcement to become part of the nation’s intelligence and anti-terrorism apparatus. That’s not a natural evolution, Liscouski said, “because you have crime and other public-safety issues that comprise 98 percent of the officer’s and department’s day. If you’re not in New York, D.C. or Los Angeles, the further you get away from that . . . the further away you feel from feeling connected to terrorism.”

That helps explain why many states have taken federal money but have lagged in measuring effectiveness. However, the view these states held last Friday is likely to be different from they view they hold today, Liscouski said.

“What you see is an evolution coming on now,” he said, noting that Atlanta and other large cities are investing aggressively in large-scale data collection, which allows police agencies to be more proactive on threats.

The wider use of publicly owned security cameras is part of that effort, as well as linking the video from private-sector cameras in stores and office buildings into the public network.

“It’s a bit more progressive, but it is where the field is going,” Liscouski said of intelligence-led policing. “Candidly, I think the oversight on the projects is always going to be difficult. States are not going to be governed by the feds, so you have some of that tension going on.”

Beena Raghavendran contributed to this article.

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