The Nation's Pulse

It’s the American Way

Looking for al Qaeda at a Toby Keith concert.

By 10.17.07

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There's big controversy here in Pittsburgh about the mayor taking the city's anti-terrorism van to a Toby Keith concert during the summer. But, really, where would our federally-supplied anti-terrorism vehicle have been that August night if the mayor hadn't taken it? Riding around the city streets looking for al Qaeda? Checking out the Ali Baba eatery, or Pita Land?

I'd say the mayor got it right that night, whether by design or chance, in terms of national security.

The Department of Homeland Security, seeing Pittsburgh as a potential target of Islamic fundamentalists, gave us the GMC Yukon for surveillance, to identify potential terrorism targets, and for intelligence gathering -- to ride around and keep an eye out for anything that looks suspicious or out of place.

The vehicle isn't a tank. There's no button on the dashboard to launch a surface-to-air missile and knock down an incoming plane that's been taken over by a gang of religious martyrs. The vehicle is just for blending in, for shadowing, especially in target-rich environments.

Now, pretend for a minute that you're a full-blown jihadist in Pittsburgh, looking for the fight of your life that summer night. Downtown's completely dead. The Marine recruiting offices are closed. The mall movies are ho-hum. Hands down, there's no better place to explode yourself than in front of a jingoistic country singer who has a crowd all pumped up with his two-fisted response to 9/11:

This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with
the U.S. of A
'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass
It's the American way.

The U.S. Attorney here, Mary Beth Buchanan, is investigating whether our federally-supplied anti-jihad asset was misallocated. It's my guess that the Toby Keith concert was probably the only time the Yukon was in the right place at the right time. Where, for example, was the vehicle last night -- parked outside a meeting of the International Student Association at Chatham University?

There's also a complaint that the SUV came back from the concert containing several Marlboro Light butts and clear evidence of a tailgate party, i.e., some traces of charcoal and barbecue -- a complaint that the mayor didn't get out his Dirt Devil at 1 in the morning. But that's how you catch shoe-bombers: by tossing a burger on the grill, blending in, and checking the tennies of passersby for fuses.

The real issue here has nothing to do with the mayor. The van shouldn't even be in Pittsburgh, not when there's not enough money in the budget to train agents in Islamic languages and the radiation detection equipment deployed to screen cargo containers can't tell the difference between highly enriched uranium and Comet cleanser.

The real problem is the massive misallocation of the nation's limited anti-terrorism resources, a federal bureaucracy that's passing out free SUVs and treating billions in anti-terrorism spending as just so much more pork to be politically distributed, regardless of any meaningful risk assessments or cost-benefit analysis.

In "What Does Homeland Security Spending Buy?" -- published in 2005 by the American Enterprise Institute -- Veronique de Rugy provides clear evidence of how the nation's security resources have been squandered. For example:

* $500,000 spent by Outagamie, Wis. -- population 165,000 and hardly a top al-Qaeda target -- to buy chemical suits, generators, rescue saws, disaster-response trailers, emergency lighting, escape hoods and a bomb-disposal vehicle.

* $30,000 used by officials in Lake County, Tenn., to help a high school buy a defibrillator to have on hand for a baseball tournament.

* $557,400 awarded to North Pole, a town in Alaska with a population of 1,570, for homeland security rescue and communication equipment.

* $98,000 spent on a training course in incident management by the Tecumseh Fire Department in Lenawee County, Mo., that no one attended.

* $63,000 spent on a decontamination unit that ended up in storage in a warehouse in rural Washington because the state didn't have a hazmat team to use it.

* $58,000 for a rescue vehicle capable of boring through concrete in Colchester, a Vermont town with a population of 18,000 and little concrete.

There's also anti-terrorism money for D.C.'s summer jobs program and port protection in Martha's Vineyard. "At Christmas, the Department of Homeland Security handed out about $153 million for programs offering food and shelter for the poor, to be spent in 2004," reports Rugy. Maybe our security bureaucrats saw the homeless as potential al Qaeda recruits.

We're lucky these guys weren't running World War II.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.