WASHINGTON — Grim talk of terrorism is again making headlines. First came the announcement that the United States will try the masterminds of the 9/11 plot, through military commissions — contemporary kangaroo courts. Now comes Senate approval of a vast surveillance bill that gives sanction to the warrantless snooping on Americans that President Bush carried out secretly until the program was exposed in the press.

And by the way, the House’s refusal to go along with giving immunity to telecommunications companies who were complicit in the spying puts the nation’s security at risk, the White House warns.

These set pieces of political discourse in the Bush era inevitably lead to the conclusion that we remain imperiled by terrorism. On this point, there is an undeniable and ugly truth behind the raw rhetoric. But there is also truth in cold, hard numbers — and in them, the White House tells an altogether different tale.

Homeland security funding — for states to try to prevent or prepare for such a disaster, for firefighters who would have to respond, for radios that would actually allow emergency personnel to communicate with one another during a catastrophe, for rail and mass transit security, for inspections and security at ports — all are stepchildren in the latest White House budget.

Grants to states and local governments for homeland security and first responders were cut by half from current funding levels, according to an analysis by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Meanwhile, financing for a special urban security program that is intended to replace pork-barrel jockeying among states, with funds better targeted to those cities — New York, Los Angeles and Washington — known to be at greatest risk of attack, is held just about flat. A project meant to help detect a nuclear or radiological device in densely populated cities — was cut by 25 percent, according to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Another to train emergency workers to handle an attack involving weapons of mass destruction also was pared.

“The threat to our cities and towns from terrorist attacks and natural disasters has not diminished, and the federal government’s contribution to protecting states and localities should not diminish either,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who chairs the homeland security panel.

Seven years into the “war on terror,” with conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq still fought in its name, there should be legitimate anger about why, as Lieberman correctly notes, the terrorist threat has “not diminished.” But if this is so — and the administration most definitely agrees — then what plausible reason is there for cutting prevention and preparedness funding, and eliminating some programs altogether?

Since New York City and the Pentagon were struck on 9/11, homeland security funding has become a crude political game. The administration started from the premise that no new money was needed to meet the demand for extraordinary services that only government — state, local or federal — can provide. To admit otherwise would jeopardize the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, and cut the heart of the conservative argument that almost no government function is a valid one.

Congress soon produced a farce, divvying up pots of anti-terrorism money like so many highway projects to the point where a few years ago, Wyoming was getting more funds per capita than was New York. Some, but not all, of these shenanigans ceased when the White House and lawmakers agreed that urban areas facing the greatest risk should get more, and a separate program was set up for them.

Now a new shell game: The White House repeatedly cuts or eliminates homeland security grants, knowing Congress usually restores the money. “I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of politicians on the Hill or in state and local governments who will advocate more spending,” says Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “Ultimately there is a limited amount available.”

But there is a limit to patience, too. And a limit to the number of years we have to prepare before what we are told is the inevitable next attack. Homeland security budget fights shouldn’t have the tone of low comedy. But they do, and somewhere, maybe a terrorist is chuckling.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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