Pulling Pork from Security

A CHILLING surveillance video released over the weekend showing four alleged suicide bombers carrying backpacks filled with explosives into the London subway serves as a dramatic reminder that terrorist threats are not only aimed high above at airliners but at everyday earthbound locations as well.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stirred a fuss last week when he played down the federal role in beefing up security on America's public transit systems.

"The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people," he said. "A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you're going to think [first] about not having a catastrophic event." Local governments, he said, must bear most - though not all - of the local transit burden.

No matter how politically tone deaf his remarks may have been, coming in the wake of the London subway bombings, his methodology is right. It represents the kind of uncomfortable priority setting that must be done as part of any sober risk assessment. The federal government does not have the funds or ability to guard against all possible threats. The most serious must take the highest priority.

If only the Senate could be so coolly logical. Last week it passed a $31.8 billion Homeland Security Department spending measure. Instead of strictly using risk assessment as a criterion for distributing funds to states, it sought to make sure that small population states received a share - without much regard for risk. About 40 percent of the funds don't take risk into account.

Doling out pork back home is a time-honored tradition that needs to be resisted - especially when the issue is national security. Money must go toward the greatest threats, not be appropriated through a formula to give everyone a little piece.

How does this connect to Mr. Chertoff's comment? Populous states can make a strong case that their transit systems are terrorist targets (remember attacks in Madrid and Tokyo, as well as London) worthy of some increased funding. With pork removed, the bill might find room for more dollars toward transit security. As of now, the Senate has cut it from $150 million to $100 million.

The bill must be reconciled with a House version before going to the president. That provides a chance to consider risk to a much greater degree. Chertoff, who seems tough and levelheaded, and others committed to spending every dollar allotted to homeland security to maximum effect, should press for legislation that really does that.

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