Thursday, February 23, 2006

DHS' Two Audits of Ports; Measuring Preparedness Undefined

All the hue and cry lately over the pending contact awarding some management control of five American ports to Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, jogged my memory about the security of our ports, an issue I addressed last autumn.

My initial concern then was the apparent resume-padding by the then-head of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness, which doles out grants to keep our ports safe from terrorism.

In poking around the DHS web site, I found the latest audit by the Inspector General on many divisions of the agency, including grants for port security. Guess what? The audit was critical of the program:

> The program has awarded approximately $560 million for over 1200 programs. We reported that the program's eligibility criteria are directed broadly at national critical seaports and the current design of the program compromises the program's ability to direct resources toward the nation's highest priorities [...]

> "In addition, grant award decisions were made with the intent of expending all available funding, and spreading funds to as many applicants as possible, leading the agency to fund 258 low-scoring projects at a cost of $67 million.

> "Moreover, the program lacks DHS criteria for granting awards to the private sector. Private entities received substantial funding, some of which went to projects that reviewers scored below average or worse, during the evaluation process.

> "Furthermore, after three rounds of grants, all grant recipients had expended only $106.9 million, or 21% of the total program awards as of September 30, 2004. [...]

> "The statutory intent and future direction of port security grants is unclear."
[Pages 27-28]

And that audit is not the only one providing insight about what is wrong with security for the ports system. The DHS Inspector General last February issued another audit, even more detailed about the failures of the grants programs to improve security.

From the NY Times Feb. 20, 2005, story:

> The Department of Homeland Security has given hundreds of millions of dollars to protect ports since Sept. 11, 2001, without sufficiently directing the money to those that are most vulnerable, a policy that has compromised the nation's ability to better defend the most critical ports against terrorist attacks, the department's inspector-general has concluded.

> Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in redundant lighting systems and unnecessary technical equipment, the audit found, and "the program has not yet achieved its intended results in the form of actual improvement in port security."

You can read the 76-page audit here.

As if those two DHS audit aren't enough to frighten you about the current status of U.S. ports, read what ports experts had to say two short weeks ago about a Bush administration idea related to security in a Federal Computer Weekly news article:

> Representatives of the nation’s public seaports oppose President Bush’s proposal to lump a dedicated grant program to improve port security into a larger funding pool.

> Under Bush's fiscal 2007 spending plan, the Port Security Grant program, which was established in 2002, would be folded into the Targeted Infrastructure Protection (TIP) program within the Homeland Security Department’s new Preparedness Directorate.

> Last year, Bush tried to consolidate the port security program into the larger grant program, but Congress rebuffed him and chose to keep the grant program separate. TIP was created to enhance security at port, railway, mass transit and other critical infrastructure facilities.

> However, officials from the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), which represents 80 U.S. ports, said if the program is consolidated into a larger program, they would have to compete for funds against other transit systems, such as buses or rail. [...]

To further rattle my nerves, I read an interesting story in Government Executive magazine from January 2006 about the frustration of several U.S. mayors over the Bush administration's recent changes in homeland security grants. An excerpt:

> Tracy Henke, the department's executive director of grants and training, conceded that the department has yet to figure out how to measure preparedness, but said it was a priority for the department.

W-T-F? Ms. Henke, the DHS chief for domestic preparedness, including ports, admits to the mayors and at least one reporter that the agency, and America really, more than four years after the 9/11 tragedies, still can't define ways to measure preparedness. Precisely how many more years do the Bush administration and DHS need to measure preparedness?

With the two DHS audits, concerns from ports experts and managers about grants, and a top DHS administrator saying on the record her agency lacks the tools necessary to measure preparedness, I don't think now is an ideal time to listen to trust the Bush administration assurances on the proposed deal with the Dubai Ports World company.

And finally, the American Association of Port Authorities, an industry group for ports in the Western Hemisphere whose top priority is security, announced this week that they've not taken a position on pending contract involving Dubai Ports World.

If the Bush administration proposal is so good, why hasn't the AAPA endorsed it?

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