Homeland Security Money Debate: Secrecy vs. Accountability

To some, it's frustrating logic: The government won't disclose how it's spending the money for ... security reasons.


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ask any New Jersey politician, and you're likely to hear a familiar refrain: The Garden State isn't getting its fair share of federal money allocated for homeland security.

Why? You'll probably be reminded of New Jersey's proximity to New York City and the 9/11 attacks, that a building in Newark received a terrorist threat, that the country's most densely-populated state is an inviting target for terrorists.

What you won't get is a detailed account of how the state has spent millions on homeland security, and why the purchases were necessary. To some, it's frustrating logic: The government won't disclose how it's spending the money for ... security reasons.

''There are certain things we don't want public, like if a county does not have a certain number of response vehicles _ that could be a potential vulnerability,'' said Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's office. ''We think we do a responsible job but there's a limit to what we can disclose. We cannot detail everything publicly.''

State and federal officials say there are safeguards to make sure states aren't asking for homeland security money they don't really need. Shatzkin cited a pre-approved equipment list, reviews by the state Attorney General's office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and another review after municipalities and counties submit reimbursement receipts.

In addition, every state has a ''preparedness officer'' who oversees how officials spend money, according to federal homeland security spokesman Marc Short. The officer assigned to New Jersey asked not to be identified or quoted for this story.

Taxpayers For Common Sense, a private watchdog group based in Washington, agrees New Jersey could be a prime target for terrorists. But it maintains that should not prevent officials from disclosing how federal anti-terrorism money is spent.

''This is about security, but this is also about giving your voters an understanding of what their government is doing for them,'' said Keith Ashdown, the group's vice president of policy. ''And when something leaks out ... it really spoils the reputation of your whole spending.''

He pointed to Newark spending $300,000 in federal homeland security money to buy two air-conditioned garbage trucks.

The Justice Department said it approved the purchase because the trucks would be needed to remove debris in the event of a terrorist attack. But garbage trucks are not among homeland security's long list of approved items that can be bought with its federal money. The two agencies separately dole out grants to states.

Three Republican state lawmakers cited Newark's garbage truck purchase as a signal that tighter controls are needed on how homeland security money is spent.

The controversy could have been avoided if the purchases had been made public when the Justice Department approved Newark's request to buy the trucks in 2003, Ashdown said.

However, an executive order issued in August 2002 by then-Gov. James McGreevey allows counties to keep secret its documents concerning security measures.

Civil libertarians are frustrated about such secrecy. New Jersey's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court asking that the state's attorney general make public records regarding homeland security money.

Deborah Jacobs, the ACLU's executive director in New Jersey, said in order to apply for federal DHS grants, municipalities had to list at least 15 suspect groups or individuals considered potential terrorist threats.

Jacobs said the state's refusal to disclose homeland security information flies in the face of New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which was revised three years ago to make government more transparent.

''On one hand, our state Legislature was saying we need a more open government, but on the other hand, the state government and the attorney general's office in particular has proven itself more secretive than the federal government,'' Jacobs said.

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