One of the major contributions New Jersey made to homeland security in the United States is Thomas H. Kean. A former Republican governor of the Garden State, Kean was chair of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated and eventually reported in telling detail the events surrounding the Sept. 11 hijackings. The commission’s final 2004 report contained a list of recommendations for the U.S. government to prevent such a tragedy from occurring in the future. Among them, the commissioners argued against allowing anti-terrorism grants to become a new brand of federal handout that local constituents came to expect. “In a free-for-all over money, it is understandable that representatives will work to protect the interests of their home states or districts,” the commission’s final report stated. “But this issue is too important for politics as usual to prevail. Resources must be allocated according to vulnerabilities.” Kean himself has been a fierce critic of the formula used to distribute homeland security grants. A year-and-a-half after the panel first published its findings, the bipartisan members issued a report card examining how well Washington had done by then in implementing practical measures to make the nation safer. The result was blistering. There were five F’s, one of them earned because Congress had still not significantly altered the way in which it handed out readiness funds to emergency responders. They were awarded to state and local communities with no real consideration of risk, vulnerability, or the potential consequences of an attack “diluting the national security benefits of this important program,” the commission concluded. At that time, billions of dollars had already left the federal till. The government also received several D’s for failing to adequately promote information sharing between law enforcement agencies, taking only minimal steps to protect privacy and civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 surveillance age and not implementing meaningful congressional oversight of the nation’s intelligence apparatus. Commission chairman Kean publicly ridiculed the method used to award grants calling it “deeply flawed” and encouraging Congress to “eradicate the unwise system” of minimum portions given to everyone regardless of location and population, which did little to distinguish between the town of Deadhorse in Alaska and Manhattan. Policymakers did eventually enact limited reforms in 2006 designed to ensure a more sophisticated process that took into account the likelihood of an assault occurring. But the legislation still faced bitter resistance from congressional delegates representing smaller, rural states who angrily defended the right of township police forces and volunteer firefighters to receive aid. And today, government auditors continue to complain that the federal government hasn’t established a reliable yardstick to measure how much the grants – totaling about $29 billion as of 2009 – have actually left the country more secure. Kean has also been skeptical of the federal government’s many investigations into home-grown terrorism since 9/11 raising questions about whether certain Bush-era prosecutions stopped a reasonable threat. Critics expressed doubts about one widely publicized case involving a father and son from Lodi, Calif., who were accused of seeking to recruit Islamic extremists and attending an Al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. The younger man, Hamid Hayat, was later sentenced to 24 years in prison, but a retired FBI agent who views the probe negatively argued that the defendants were coerced into confessing. In an interview with the PBS program “Frontline” during 2006, Kean said: “When you say ‘disrupt a plot,’ the second thing is you look at it and say, ‘Was the plot real?’ Frankly, you’ve got a lot of nuts in this country, unfortunately, who are always talking about doing this or that. … The American people have got to understand what’s real and what’s not real, so that they can be part of the defense of this country. … We’ve got to be very, very serious about what’s credible and what’s not credible.” To be clear, while Kean and other elected officials have argued that a more risk-based system should be used for apportioning preparedness grants, New Jersey hasn’t been free of the problems other states suffered in managing the funds. Auditors found in 2007 that the New Jersey State Police had cancelled a large equipment purchase totaling $675,000 awarded through the Urban Area Security Initiative, but the money was not returned to the federal government. They also questioned another $652,000 in spending because documents weren’t available to fully support the purchases or paperwork provided didn’t agree with amounts charged to the grants. The state’s Department of Law and Public Safety promised in response to carry out better bookkeeping practices, but similar findings were noted by auditors during previous years and in other reports. We were not able to obtain from New Jersey detailed records that showed every transaction the state made involving homeland security grants. But in response to a request filed under the state’s Open Public Records Act, officials did supply us with three years worth of purchase reports. They’re available for download here. Communities must buy equipment with their own money first before being paid back later. The final column titled “reimbursed” refers to how much the grantee ultimately received from Washington. While the descriptions are generalized and some information was even blacked out by authorities for security reasons, it’s still possible to detect themes in New Jersey’s grant spending from past years. The state paid at least $373,000 in overtime to personnel for “intelligence-sharing activities” from 2005 grants during a heightened alert, for instance. Essex County in the northeastern section of the state spent $900,000 in grants from that year on surveillance cameras, barriers, impact-resistant doors and building-access control. Emergency responders in Hudson County bought all-terrain vehicles and a mobile-command post using $630,000 from the funds.
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