All the security money can buy, but unease is indelible
The state, and especially Boston, has tapped the gusher of US antiterror funds, buying topnotch gear - which, in these 10 years of eerie calm, has seen little use.
Fourth in an eight-part series.
The bomb exploded 5,300 miles away at a Coptic Christian church in Egypt. But police in Natick were taking no chances last winter when a local branch of the church celebrated Christmas Eve a few days later.
Rifle-toting, helmeted officers blocked traffic near St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church for seven hours, requiring church members to take a bus to services and requiring residents to show ID before they could go home. Out back, a SWAT team waited inside a specialized armored truck equipped with a sniper’s post on the roof, radiation detectors on the outside, and cameras that can read a license plate several hundred yards away.
All this, even though records show that the FBI had no evidence of a specific threat to this, or any, US Coptic church, just general concerns that they relayed to the police.
“I felt like we were in a war,’’ recalled Ben Mbugua, who lives across the street from St. Mark’s. “I feel like Iraq was not even that well defended.’’
That’s the kind of heightened security that a flood of federal grant money can buy. Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks triggered a massive effort to improve American defenses against terrorism, police forces across the country are armed with high-tech equipment they could not have afforded before the Department of Homeland Security began doling out $40 billion for local emergency preparedness, including $500 million to Massachusetts.
While homeland security has bulked up, local law enforcement has, thankfully, had little use for all the new gear. Since the raw months after Sept. 11 when the National Guard was dispatched to airports and politicians advocated antiaircraft guns for nuclear plants, there have been only two major terror attacks with multiple deaths in the United States: the murder of 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, and the anthrax attacks of 2001, which killed five.
As time has passed, the public has become gradually less fearful - and less patient with intrusive security measures such as full-body scans at airports, much less SWAT teams at church services. We haven’t grown complacent about the likelihood of another major attack - indeed, most expect one, as a new Globe poll (see accompanying story on A9) makes clear. But we no longer organize our lives around that risk.
And “homeland security’’ has come to mean much more than fighting terrorism. Today, federal grants are viewed as a spigot of money that pays for all manner of equipment for everything from crime solving to natural disaster relief. The Department of Homeland Security long ago gave in to pressure from local law enforcement agencies to allow them to spend the grants on “all hazards,’’ since, day to day, they’re far more concerned with fighting street crime than ferreting out Al Qaeda operatives.
But the result is a growing arsenal purchased under the banner of the national antiterror program that sees limited action - if it’s used at all.
The 18,000-pound truck that carried the SWAT team to the Natick Christmas Eve celebration - the “BearCat’’ - was paid for entirely by a $325,000 federal grant intended to strengthen US defenses against chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. But the BearCat has had only one terror-related duty in its first year, protecting the Coptic congregation. About twice a month, police in several suburban communities use the BearCat to make arrests of suspects believed to have weapons.
A Globe review of homeland security spending in Massachusetts found numerous pieces of rarely used antiterror equipment.
In Roxbury, Boston’s Emergency Operations Center - a communications facility retrofitted with a $436,654 federal grant in 2007 - operated just 30 days in the last two years, and its only terror-related duty was training.
In Beverly, a cache of cots, generators, and other disaster equipment is used mainly as a source of signboards for public works officials to reroute traffic during construction or other routine activities.
In a Haverhill depot, a bus equipped to evacuate up to 12 patients on stretchers hasn’t been used for any disaster, natural or manmade, since it was retrofitted for $60,000 in federal funding in June 2010.
Before Sept. 11, there had been no Homeland Security Department and Washington provided almost no financial support. Yet after the attacks, other grants illustrate the agency’s cost-is-no-object mandate to take on terror risks.
When Boston and surrounding cities obtained 13 bomb-sniffing dogs in 2008, the federal grant also paid for a $35,000 sport-utility vehicle to go with each animal. When a consultant staged a $1 million emergency drill in Boston last spring, he hired a makeup company to make the terror victims’ mock wounds look more realistic, “moulage’’ in special effects circles. When Boston emergency officials needed a vehicle to haul equipment and run other errands this year, federal grants paid for a gleaming white Chevy Tahoe - for $52,800.
This extraordinary array of equipment and specially trained personnel can be reassuring in the same way that life jackets on a boat make people feel safer even if they’re seldom needed. Leaders of St. Mark’s publicly thanked Natick police for all the protection at their Christmas Eve services, with one parishioner noting that terrorists “never plan small attacks.’’
More broadly, Massachusetts homeland security officials say that all the antiterror preparations are amply justified by the World Trade Center attacks in which almost 3,000 people lost their lives because the United States was not ready.
“A reality of life post-9/11 is the need to be prepared for catastrophic events that none of us hopes ever occur,’’ said David Procopio, spokesman for the State Police, defending Massachusetts’ preparation for terror attacks. “Even if these assets are not deployed regularly, it does not change the fact that we have to be prepared for the worst-case ‘what if.’ ’’
But other homeland security officials acknowledge that the federal largesse has fueled a “wish list’’ mentality for government agencies who buy things on the federal dime that they probably would not spend their own money on. For instance, State Police obtained their $550,000 “Moose boat’’ - specially designed to maneuver in as little as 18 inches of water - one year after Massport bought a Moose boat to patrol exactly the same waters.
“It’s like in the neighborhood. One kid rides in on a fancy new bike and suddenly all the other kids think their perfectly good bikes are now no good and they got to get a fancier one,’’ said Carlo Boccia, who until 2006 was homeland security director in Boston.
Once some security measures are taken, it’s hard to reverse course even if the level of threat no longer justifies the precautions.
Shortly after Sept. 11, the Massachusetts National Guard dispatched 18 soldiers to guard the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth. The move calmed jittery nerves, but it soon became clear to state officials that Pilgrim had an ample security staff of its own and that a nuclear plant was a very difficult target for terrorists to strike. Nonetheless, they left the Guardsmen there for the next seven years - at a cost of $1.5 million a year - for fear of triggering renewed local fears.
The boom in spending has also created a full-fledged homeland security bureaucracy here - the state and city pay more than $1 million a year to people who manage their grant proposals - and a cadre of private security consultants that has an enormous personal stake in keeping the money flowing. Since 2003, the city of Boston has received about $170 million in federal antiterror funding, a third of the state total.
“We were always well funded in Boston, but, unfortunately, we spent too much on equipment,’’ acknowledged Boccia. “Really, how many toys and gadgets do you need?’’
The answer appears to be more. In a weak economy, the billions flowing from more than a dozen different homeland security grant programs are increasingly coveted, inspiring creation of a national organization to lobby Congress on behalf of the cities that get most of it. They are increasingly worried about budget-cutting conservatives who have singled out homeland security grants for reductions - the Heritage Foundation calls the grants “another avenue for pork-barrel spending in Congress’’ - when they come up for renewal next year.
Meanwhile, the cities spar for a bigger share. The Massachusetts congressional delegation waged a successful three-year fight to persuade the Department of Homeland Security to list Boston among the 10 urban areas most vulnerable to terrorism, bringing millions a year in antiterror funding. New York officials grumbled that Boston’s good luck could siphon funds from the Big Apple.
“Everyone in Washington is trying to take care of their constituents back home,’’ said Rick Nelson, homeland security program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based bipartisan public policy institute. “No one is going to argue, ‘Hey, my city needs less protection.’ You’ll lose an election that way.’’
Smaller cities that aren’t considered major terror targets sometimes wish they were seen as more at risk, at least when they pursue grants. The mayor of Gloucester has tried without success to get the hard-pressed fishing port declared a terror risk.
“It’s just not fair,’’ said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. “They use some kind of bureaucratic formula and it makes no sense. No one is willing to look at it. Because if ‘we’ get more money, ‘they’ get less.’’
There has not been much terrorism to fight anywhere in New England in the 10 years since hijackers commandeered two planes out of Logan International Airport and flew them into the World Trade Center. Since the federal government began systematically tracking terror incidents in January 2004, there have been 34 terror attacks carried out nationwide, causing 16 deaths, but none of the attacks has been in New England.
Boston’s campaign to be named a top - “tier 1’’ - terror target was based almost entirely on the city’s vulnerability to terrorism rather than its actual experience. For instance, the city is home to the nation’s only urban terminal for deliveries of liquefied natural gas and a single tanker explosion could do damage for more than a mile in all directions, according to an MIT analysis. Officials for Distrigas, owners of the Everett terminal, say that there has never been a credible threat to the tankers’ weekly deliveries to Boston in 40 years, although just to be sure, tankers are routinely boarded by the Coast Guard and accompanied into harbor by escort boats while sharpshooters and police dogs patrol the shore.
Of course, Massachusetts law enforcement officials necessarily spend a great deal of time following up on potential terrorism leads that turn out to be false alarms. The Boston police explosives unit has investigated 10 bomb threats and 65 suspicious packages in the city so far this year, but they haven’t found a bomb since 2009. Likewise, the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard, set up in 2005 to coordinate police intelligence gathering, followed up on 209 reports of suspicious activity over the last year, but most were baseless and State Police estimate that two-thirds of its activities were unrelated to terrorism in the first place.
In and among the dead ends, law enforcement officials in Massachusetts have arrested a few potential terrorists or their accomplices over the last decade, such as an Agawam man who had stockpiled ingredients for poison gas at his home in 2004. But such moments are rare and state officials would be the first to admit that the threat of terrorism ranks much lower than the threat of natural disasters, such as flooding, or manmade disasters, including the 2006 chemical explosion that destroyed scores of buildings in Danvers.
“The watchword is vigilance; be prepared,’’ said Mary Beth Heffernan, who as public safety secretary oversees the State Police and state emergency management agencies. “But terrorism is not something that comes up every day. . . . I sleep well at night and we all should sleep well.’’
It was just a small blinking sign, but its suspicious location - attached to an Interstate 93 ramp near Sullivan Square in Charlestown - prompted police to close the highway’s northbound lanes at morning rush hour. Within hours, police got reports of more mysterious devices in Cambridge and Somerville.
By nightfall on Jan. 30, 2007, bomb squads had investigated 38 blinking signs that were not bombs at all, but an offbeat marketing campaign to promote a cable network cartoon. “This is not the kind of publicity we would ever seek,’’ said a chagrined spokesman for Turner Broadcasting, the cartoon’s owner.
Yet, police found a silver lining in the fiasco. The incident made it clear that law enforcement was ill-equipped to respond to numerous simultaneous reports of suspicious devices. In the wake of the cartoon controversy, police applied for and won a $700,000 federal grant to acquire the 13 bomb-sniffing dogs, and their SUV transports, for the Boston area.
The cartoon incident “demonstrated the region’s severe shortage of explosive counter-terrorism capability,’’ wrote Jake Sullivan, then Boston’s acting emergency management director, in a letter making his case for all the specially trained dogs.
Today, the dogs are deployed throughout the region, but they aren’t very busy and they’re much more likely to work on everyday criminal investigations. Records show that the dogs in Quincy and Revere are called to duty about once a week, usually to help find guns or drugs.
The dogs have had some successes. In 2010, Revere’s dog, Walsh, scared at least two suspects so much that they surrendered when they saw him. But the closest Walsh came to a bomb was a suspicious cooler left behind on Revere Beach.
“You never know what’s in there,’’ explained Revere Police Chief Terence Reardon. “It’s better to send the dog in first.’’
That’s the legacy of a federal initiative that was created to fight terrorism, but that has, over time, yielded to pressure to broaden its reach. Those seeking federal funding emphasize the terror connection to make their case, whether or not it’s central to the real mission - and it is that pattern that has energized conservative critics of federal largesse.
Massachusetts officials make no apology for using federal grants for overall public safety goals rather than antiterrorism programs exclusively. In fact, in its annual reports, the Executive Office of Public Safety boasts that disaster responses have been improved considerably by the investments in better communication systems and cooperation between various emergency responders.
“The state is largely working on preparedness for disasters, tornado, storms, and disaster at the Plymouth nuclear plant,’’ said Heffernan, who says the homeland security investments have been well spent. “We are ready for any disaster or terrorist event like never before.’’
But town officials in Monson have some reason to question that claim. A tornado swept through the Western Massachusetts town in early June, tearing the roof off the police station and crippling the 911 system. Making matters worse, there was no two-way radio coverage in most of the town and cellphones were nearly useless because the network was so overloaded.
Police Chief Stephen Kozloski asked the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency if his town could use the state’s $1 million mobile 911 unit, a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that can manage a town’s 911 calls for weeks, if necessary. But Kozloski couldn’t get it because Springfield police were already using the mobile unit during a construction project - a legitimate use, according to state policy, but Kozloski felt his need was far more pressing.
“Monson after the tornado was the time and place to use this expensive equipment, but it didn’t happen,’’ said Kozloski.