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Sunday, February 25th, 2024

House panel seeks restoration of homeland security grants

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A bipartisan group of U.S. House members, in the wake of this week’s U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and recent domestic acts of anti-Semitic violence, called on the Trump administration to restore millions of dollars in homeland security grants aimed at aiding state and local jurisdictions in combatting terrorism.

U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called for a bipartisan nationwide effort to expand funding for antiterrorism programs, and not just maintenance of current funding levels. “This is not an accounting issue, it’s a life or death issue and we have to face up to it,” King said during Thursday’s hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery, which was discussing proposed reductions in funding for the State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). The Trump administration has proposed reducing funding for each program by about a third, to $331.4 million and $426.5 million, respectively, for fiscal year 2020.

“The threat landscape is ever-evolving, and a lack of preparedness funding from the federal government would make it that much more difficult for states to meet their homeland security needs,” said U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), chairman of the subcommittee. “Today, America is at an elevated risk of terrorist attack following the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by U.S. forces in Iraq. And because Iran has promised revenge, jurisdictions like mine are on heightened alert and have to be more vigilant.”

“We are also reminded of homeland security needs by events like the Jersey City shooting at a Jewish grocery store last month that claimed the lives of four victims, including a police officer. The loss of one life is too many, and I can only imagine how this tragedy would have unfolded if Jersey City was not armed with the capabilities they were able to build with DHS preparedness grant funding,” said Payne, whose district includes what has been called the most dangerous two miles in America, encompassing Newark International Airport, the largest port on the East Coast, major rail lines, and major chemical and petroleum refineries. Payne also alluded to a bipartisan bill that passed both the House and Senate late last year that would provide funding to protect nonprofit organizations at risk of terrorist attacks that is awaiting President Trump’s signature.

U.S. Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) called the absence of an increase in funding levels “a bipartisan failure.”

King and other panel members said the killing of Iran’s Soleimani increases the possibility that Iran will retaliate in a variety of ways, such as a cyber attack or terrorist bombing, necessitating greater vigilance by U.S. security entities. An increase in attacks on religious institutions and Jewish-owned businesses, like last month’s attack on a kosher deli in New Jersey, also lend credence to the need for greater efforts to guard against terrorist violence, the lawmakers and a panel of homeland security experts agreed.

“Simply put,” W. Greg Kierce, director of the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told the panel, “reduced homeland security funding places our nation at risk. It minimizes our capacity to mitigate risk, prepare, respond and recover from hazard events, while simultaneously increasing our risk.”

John Miller, deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department’s division on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, said the pot of money being awarded for the local grants has to be bigger nationwide because of the interconnectedness of security initiatives and the possibility that terrorists could strike anywhere in the United States. “Sure New York is a target, but as we learn from week to week there is nowhere that is not a target,” he said. “Events can change from day to day.”

“Our ability to adapt and innovate is directly tied to a continuing and increased level of federal funding. Even as the years between 9/11 and the present day grow, the threat has not diminished. One day in the future, when New York City is no longer under constant threat, I hope and pray that we can have a conversation about how better to use our resources, but that time is not today. We cannot afford to become complacent,” said Miller.

Michael Sprayberry, director of North Carolina Emergency Management at the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, explained how grants have been cut for the city of Charlotte, even though the city will be host to a major event this summer, the Republican National Convention, which is a natural target for potential terrorists. “Due to this reduction, we have not been able to fund significant new initiatives to improve our preparedness,” said Sprayberry.

“I would like to state for the record that the removal of Charlotte from the list of funded UASI jurisdictions is problematic,” Sprayberry said. “As the state’s most populous jurisdiction with a large presence of critical infrastructure, to include one of the largest concentrations of financial institutions nationwide, the lack of funding to support the jurisdiction has put our state at risk. Their ability to maintain response capability has been detrimentally impacted, as well as their ability to implement new programs, such as a robust cybersecurity initiative, to adequately protect their residents, visitors and infrastructure. Of particular concern is that with the loss of their UASI funding, Charlotte will be unable to fund planned purchases of anti-terrorism equipment for law enforcement, bomb squad equipment and communications equipment.

Additionally, planned exercises will be unable to be funded. With major mass gatherings and public events occurring almost weekly in the jurisdiction and with the 2020 Republican National Convention scheduled for August, the ability to respond to known threats and hazards has been diminished, not to mention the ability to proactively address emerging threats.”

Michael Masters, national director and CEO of Secure Community Network, which helps protect Jewish facilities from anti-Semitic attacks, noted the big increase of attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses the past few years. “The Jewish community not only remains the number one target of religiously motivated hate crimes, but we have seen a rise in these events to near-historic levels, as well as increases in anti-Semitic incidents across the country,” said Masters.

Rep. King explained that Congress has been successful in reversing homeland security cuts proposed by both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and he expressed confidence Congress will prevail again.