Federal Efforts to Secure Key Cities From Mass Terror Attack Found Faulty

Report: DHS 'does not have assurance that cities can sustain threat detection and deterrence'

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan / Getty Images

A federal investigation into a nationwide program to secure America's top cities from a mass terror attack has found that the Department of Homeland Security has not adequately tracked local progress in detecting threats and cannot provide assurances that cities participating in the program can sustain efforts to thwart terror attacks.

Since June 2018, several large cities have received nearly $145 million in federal dollars to purchase detection equipment and other devices that could help local law enforcement detect nuclear and radiological materials, which the federal government has deemed a top national security matter.

However, DHS—which operates the program—has not adequately tracked how dollars are spent, nor has the agency developed methods to ensure that these key cities can sustain detection efforts aimed at stopping a weapon of mass destruction if a terrorist deployed it.

With the Trump administration's Justice Department charging would-be terrorists in the United States at a quickening rate, detection efforts have become all the more important for major cities. Federal investigators are now warning DHS that it must make a greater effort to help these cities sustain their threat detection abilities.

"DHS does not have assurance that cities can sustain threat detection and deterrence capabilities gained through the" Securing the Cities program, also known as STC, according to a new report issued by federal oversight investigators. "DHS has not enforced planning requirements for sustaining those capabilities and has taken limited action to help cities do so, although encouraging sustainment is one of its primary program goals."

Local officials from at least five cities participating in the program told federal investigators "they anticipate funding challenges that will adversely impact their ability to sustain capabilities over time," the report warns. "For example, several city officials said they cannot rely on other DHS or federal grant programs or local sources of funding once STC funding ends."

"Unless DHS analyzes risks related to sustainment, works with cities to address these risks, and enforces sustainment-planning requirements for cities in the program in the future, program participants could see their radiological detection programs and related capabilities deteriorate," the report states.

In addition to funding and organizational challenges, DHS's Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, or CWMD, "does not have assurance that cities can sustain threat detection and deterrence capabilities gained through the STC program, and cities anticipate funding challenges once STC program funding ends," according to the report. "Specifically, CWMD has not enforced sustainment planning requirements and has taken limited action to help cities sustain their capabilities, even though encouraging sustainment is one of its primary program goals. Cities anticipate funding challenges that will adversely affect their ability to sustain capabilities after the program."

The threat detection program was initially launched in 2007 in New York City, Jersey City, and the Newark area. It later expanded to Los Angeles in 2012, the Washington, D.C. area in 2014, Houston in 2015, and Chicago in 2016.

While the federal dollars being awarded to these cities is tracked by DHS, it "does not collect other data on itemized expenditures and to assess how effectively cities achieved performance metrics and program milestones or how they performed in drills that simulate a threat," the investigation found.

DHS "does not know" the amount of money cities actually spend on purchases related to detecting terror threats.

Federal investigators found this concerning given the continuing terror threat America faces each day.

"The United States faces an enduring threat that terrorists could smuggle in nuclear or radiological materials to use in a terrorist attack," the report states. "U.S. efforts to counter such threats are considered a top national priority, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)."

The problem is compounded by DHS's efforts to expand the program to other cities while still failing to track current program participants.

"DHS officials told [the Government Accountability Office] that the agency is considering several potential changes to the STC program that would broaden its geographic reach and scope and centralize acquisition of detection equipment, among other things, but it has not fully developed or documented these changes and does not have a strategy or plan for implementing them," the report states.