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Homeland Security Boondoggle

High-tech gizmos for goobers while our ports remain vulnerable

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At this very moment, jihid-crazed terrorists could be unloading weapons of mass destruction capable of decimating half the state at one of our ports, where they have less than a five percent chance of detection. Or, perhaps they're planning to simultaneously attack our shoddily protected nuclear plants. In either case, we'd pretty much be screwed.

But if, God forbid, they attack the tax office or the courthouse in rural Gates County, population 10,516, we'll be ready for them. Like rural counties across the state, Gates just used part of its homeland security grant money on security systems designed to prevent a "weapons of mass destruction event" at its public buildings.

While our most vulnerable points go virtually unprotected, counties across the state with populations too small to fill our uptown arena are porking out on homeland security grants, stocking up on $3,800 satellite phones, $2,500 pairs of binoculars, $15,000 all terrain vehicles, portable fax machines and $2,300 night vision scopes they claim they'll need in case of an attack by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, some of our soldiers in Iraq, who actually stood a chance of encountering a terrorist, went without body armor last year. But the police officers in Roxboro, population 8,696 sure didn't. Some $18,000 in Homeland Security grant money made sure their force was well-protected.

The story is the same in county after county. Last year, this state squandered much of its $31 million in homeland security grant money in much the same way it was squandered across the country. As rural counties picked from Department of Homeland Security lists of permissible but sometimes useless equipment, they assembled bizarre conglomerations of junk they claim they'll use if attacked by terrorists.

Take rural Burke County in western North Carolina, for instance. Though it's hardly a world class destination for terrorists, this year it got, among other things, a $2,725 Satellite Earth Station phone, a $17,000 mobile command center, $52,000 worth of night vision goggles, $7,700 worth of laptops and two $40,000 4x4s, an all terrain vehicle, and a van to haul it all around in.

Expenditures by larger counties were at times equally bizarre. Robots, for instance, were particularly popular this year. Gaston County spent $111,380 on a robot to sniff out bombs and weapons of mass destruction. New Hanover County's $137,000 Andros robot resembles a Mars rover. It can be sent into the field to surveil for weapons of mass destruction so the county's security officers don't have to put themselves at risk. Of course, the two underwater remote-controlled vehicles purchased for a mere $77,000 by coastal Dare County, population 29,000, are pretty cool, too. Cabarrus County is ready to fight the good jihad with its $33,000 Vanguard Robot, capable of operating in extreme conditions like the deserts of Iraq, $42,000 worth of night vision equipment, an $8,600 infrared telescope and $50,000 worth of biohazard identification equipment.

Others counties went high-tech as well. Guilford County spent $32,400 on satellite phones and $35,000 on a handheld computer to be used in a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives crisis. To keep the terrorists from stealing their anti-terrorism toys, the county installed a $10,000 inventory control system, all of it paid for, of course, with homeland security grant money.

Dozens of other counties chose a more practical route, installing metal detectors in their courthouses and elaborate $50,000 security systems to protect government and court buildings in cities I've never heard of. Green County, population 18,970, used $5,444 of its grant to install two bullet resistant acrylic security windows on its communications center. Apparently, they expect terrorists to attack them while they're managing a disaster.

Other counties spent the money on elaborate fencing systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars to close in sheriff's departments and police stations.

Some counties didn't even make much of an attempt to create the appearance of using the money to fight terrorism, splurging, as Caswell County did, on fully loaded $40,000 SUVs and pick-up trucks.

How any of this will help secure the homeland is unclear. But one thing is certain. It will all be virtually useless if terrorists hit us where we're really vulnerable.

Worse yet, a look at the homeland security guidelines that are still dictating how current grants will be spent this year and next aren't much different. That means next year will probably bring another round of infrared camera equipment and high-tech binoculars to people who have absolutely no use for them.

Apparently, what's important isn't whether the terrorists take us out, but whether we go out in style with all the latest high-tech gadgetry.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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