In the spring of 2008, local officials across the country in charge of spending federal anti-terrorism grants responded with befuddlement to a new rule imposed by the Department of Homeland Security on anyone planning to apply for the preparedness funds. In order to be eligible that year, grantees would need to devise a plan for defeating improvised explosive devices, or IEDs as they’re known – not in Iraq where the devices are commonly used against U.S. troops, but in American communities from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore. “IEDs? As in Iraq IEDs?” one local emergency manager exclaimed when the New York Times reported on the curious guidelines. “There was no new intelligence about this. It just came out of nowhere.” The federal government also directed local grantees that year to devote 25 percent of hundreds of millions of dollars in homeland security grants to a mix of preparedness planning and the purported threat posed by IEDs, which are virtually unknown in the United States. Confused emergency responders have policymakers like Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to thank in part. The small, northeastern state has just 1.3 million people and hardly competes with New York and California as a presumed target of terrorist bombers. But Collins has long been a powerful member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the senator proudly cites her role in establishing a greater emphasis on improvised explosive devices. The federal government planned to spend almost $400 million that year alone fortifying the nation’s ports against IEDs and other unconventional attacks, also a priority for Collins. She introduced a bill in 2007 called the National Bombing Prevention Act that would have pumped $25 million annually into the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Bombing Prevention and expanded initiatives to counter IED threats, but the legislation eventually died in committee. “We need to make sure that bomb squads have the latest and most accurate information on bombing threats,” she said on the Senate floor at the time. “We need to raise awareness of the signs of possible threats, including purchases of pre-cursor materials and other suspicious activities. We need to improve information sharing and coordination of activities among all levels of government as well as the private sector.” Collins called it good news that the Department of Homeland Security cared about “the importance of bomb prevention” as much as she did when the new grant mandates for local first responders were announced, according to the Washington Times. Meanwhile, newspapers in Maine commonly publish articles about even the smallest federal grants landing in local coffers – $17,000 for the tiny town of Temple, Maine, to buy its fire department new gear, $34,000 for training simulators in Wilton and $190,000 for Pittston to buy new rescue vehicles. The stories typically correspond to press releases distributed by the senator’s prolific media relations staff. Policymakers from target-rich states have repeatedly attempted to reform the formula used to distribute anti-terrorism grants after years of complaints that the cash had become a new form of government pork enriching vast areas of the country unlikely to be struck by hijackers. That would mean states with larger population centers and major tourist attractions receiving more while the senator’s Pine Tree State, as it’s known, learned to do with far less. Experts argued that the grants should be based to a greater extent on risk assessments and how well states conceived their applications for the funds, and to a degree, those changes have occurred. But Collins continually cried foul and fought to ensure small states were awarded a required minimum of funds regardless of what officials at the Department of Homeland Security determined. Joined by her equally powerful colleague on the Senate’s homeland security committee, Democrat-turned-Independent Joseph Lieberman, the pair has succeeded in limiting the extent of the overhaul. Lieberman represents another small state, Connecticut. The Portland Press Herald argued in a 2005 editorial during the heat of the debate that Washington shouldn’t award Maine as much, because “the nation would be better off if the men and women most likely to find their communities under attack get first crack at limited funds.” Records we obtained from the state of Maine show that it pays to have a powerful ally in Washington, and homeland security grants have afforded communities there millions of dollars worth of anti-terrorism and preparedness equipment. We submitted an open-records request under the Maine Freedom of Access Act to the state’s Emergency Management Agency and received in response files reflecting individual grant purchases. It’s available for download below in an Excel spreadsheet. Our analysis shows that among other things the state spent $572,000 during 2007 from a little-known federal grant called Operation Stonegarden for overtime and other personnel expenses. The Department of Homeland Security exclusively makes that program available to states with an international borderline, and Maine, which is surrounded on three sides by the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, cited “added patrols” as reason for the spending in records. Other purchases included multiple laptops, laser-jet printers, software and additional computer equipment; numerous pairs of night-vision goggles costing up to $3,400 each; pricey satellite phones; a $48,000 boat for the town of Standish, Maine, population 9,900 and a $31,000 in-car video system bought by police in Old Town, where an estimated 7,700 people live.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz