Earlier this year, the Center for Investigative Reporting presented the results of its unprecedented effort to collect records from around the country using open-government laws that showed how each state had used the more than $30 billion Congress has handed out since the Sept. 11 attacks for anti-terrorism and preparedness. Our findings were initially housed on the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity’s website. We partnered with them for our homeland security project, “America’s War Within,” beginning in late 2008.
Now we’ve repackaged the material and posted it anew on CIR’s website with additional features and a different look.
The initial online package included an interactive map and vignettes showing how each state figured into the recent history of homeland security. Also available were stories we reported along the way, from an examination of homeland security grant spending in California to a reckoning of the hundreds of millions states have spent attempting to create interoperable public-safety radio systems. We also uploaded hundreds of documents detailing individual grant transactions and investments as well as audits and investigations describing instances in which the money had been abused.
All of those features are now available on our site as well, but previously visitors could only access the documents we obtained by downloading a large folder for each state. We’ve now uploaded the files individually in boxes located next to the state profiles, so you can see a description of the document before reading it for yourself.
For instance, records made available by the state of Louisiana show local officials there purchased several dozen new Dodge Durango SUVs. The vehicles are categorized for “terrorism incident prevention” and threats posed by chemical, biological and nuclear agents. By going to Louisiana’s profile in our map, you can download the 600-page PDF listing hundreds of other such transactions and then look for your community. Was the $7,700 4×4 Trail Gator bought by Acadia Parish an appropriate use of taxpayer money? How about the two ballistic shields Evangeline acquired with a price tag of $1,500 each? You decide.
For each state you’ll still find our own analysis of how local authorities used preparedness grants, but in many cases, we also wrote profiles that went beyond the spending of taxpayer money, because 9/11 did more than just prompt extraordinary new investments in homeland security.
The state of South Carolina made headlines when its governor, Mark Sanford, rebelled against a Bush-era law requiring enhanced security features in drivers’ licenses to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from fraudulently obtaining identification. Sanford and others viewed the law as a possible step toward national ID cards. Texas, meanwhile, became the center of debate when Congress passed a law directing the homeland security secretary to build a fence hundreds of miles long on the southwest border. Several counties there filed suit to stop it in 2008, and some communities were literally divided by the fence’s construction.
But there’s plenty of original reporting in our map on the use of federal homeland-security grants, too. From West Virginia we obtained a document showing that the federal government questioned the use of more than $8 million in funds spent on trips, lapel pins, furniture, office supplies, cell-phone charges and more. A number of the state’s top homeland-security officials resigned, retired or were fired amid allegations that the money was mismanaged. Records turned over by officials in Colorado showed that a $54,000 trailer one county purchased “did not appear to have been used” after four years had passed.
We also highlighted states that received praise from auditors and other observers for managing the grants effectively or implementing unique emergency preparedness programs. The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, points to the 1997 Red River flood in North Dakota as an example of disaster response done right. Among other things, officials there established a credentialing program for contractors so that residents would be protected from fraud and shoddy work as they sought to rebuild their lives.
We’re calling it the Price of Peril, because figuratively and literally the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have cost us dearly. Now the nation must ensure that every dime we pay and every right we give up for greater security is worth it.