Fear can be a lucrative business. That, at least, is what American companies selling security gadgets are finding out as the US government continues to spend billions of dollars on a variety of different Homeland Security programs. The only problem? Most of them are useless.
Clark Kent Ervin, 46, is one of those people on whom the US president likes to depend. The staunch Republican is an old friend from Texas who once worked for George W. Bush in the governor's mansion and who, on Bush Junior's recommendation, managed to get a job in Bush Senior's administration. Ervin is an amiable man who is usually quick to smile. The exception? When you mention his last employer -- the two-and-a-half-year-old US Department of Homeland Security.
The problems at the bureaucratic behemoth -- with its 180,000 employees -- are myriad, says Ervin, a graduate of Harvard. "I've never experienced anything like it before," he says.
And now Ervin, appointed by his friend Bush to the position of highest-ranking internal auditor on the homeland security front, is suddenly without a job. His reports on the chaos, corruption and wastefulness at the department were so thorough and full-throated that he became a liability to the president. Since Ervin was forced out of the department, the gold rush-like mood in the American security industry, whose excesses were at the center of Ervin's complaints, has continued unabated.
The business of fear in the United States of America has been booming ever since September 11, 2001 and the price tag for the protective cordon of high-tech gadgetry intended to keep the US safe from more terrorist attacks is enormous. Devices designed to detect nuclear material in shipping containers will cost the US government $300 million. The budget for the American Shield Initiative, a plan that calls for monitoring the country's borders with sensors or drones, comes at the hefty price of $2.5 billion. A further $10 billion is budgeted for a new computer system designed to monitor visitors, while outfitting all 6,800 aircraft in US commercial aviation with anti-missile systems will cost about the same amount. The total 2005 Homeland Security budget weighs in at a whopping $50 billion -- roughly equivalent to the gross national product of New Zealand.
"The market is growing at an incredible rate," gushes the Security Industry Association at its "networking lunch" with members of Congress and administration officials. Throughout the country, conventions are being held where products like mobile emergency command centers and Blackberrys that provide direct access to FBI computers are on offer. Another popular item is "Fido," a cell phone-sized device used to detect explosive material. Demand is high, especially now that the going rate for a decent bomb-sniffing dog in the United States has skyrocketed to $10,000.
"We'll call these the good old days in ten years," says an enthusiastic Ray Oleson, whose information technology company posted a fifty percent jump in sales in the first quarter of this year. The American newsmagazine US News & World Report calls the booming business "Washington's version of a Turkish bazaar."
Ervin, the fired auditor, is wary of the current consumerist climate and would have preferred spending funds more slowly and judiciously. After all, much of what the industry is peddling as products designed "to secure America's future" (an industry marketing slogan) has proven to be insufficiently developed and prone to failure. To this day, the harbor nuclear detectors are incapable of distinguishing between bombs and kitty litter or bananas, leading frustrated customs officials to simply shut them off. The new $1.2 billion explosives detectors for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a part of Homeland Security, are equally unreliable.
Another criticism of Homeland Security's money-spending ways is that it isn't terribly focused. The security business is booming in places like the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Wyoming as well -- hardly places that come to mind as potential terrorist targets. But according to the requirements stipulated by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security's budget must be equally distributed among all US states and territories. Last year, Wyoming spent $37.74 per capita on homeland security while the state of New York had to make do with $5.41 per capita. The result? Every police officer in Wyoming now has his or her own ABC protective suit.
To make sure that all this lucrative hemorrhaging of American taxpayers' money doesn't come to an end too soon, the security industry has taken a page from the defense industry and hired specialists who are aptly nicknamed "rainmakers" -- political insiders adept at selling their influence to the highest bidder. Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, is now lobbying on behalf of container security, while many of his former top officials have set up shop on K Street, Washington's magnificent mile for lobbyists.
Indeed, in the three years since it came into being, the Transportation Security Administration has already gone through four directors. Each of the current director's predecessors was simply unable to resist the temptations of the industry. Richard Clarke, the former White House Chief of Counterterrorism, warns that "we'll never have a competent team if this goes on." According to a government study, thus far only four of the Department of Homeland Security's 33 homeland protection programs are considered effective, leading the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to promise Congress that he'll be taken a closer look at how the department spends its billions. But despite Chertoff's promises, the booming industry's prospects remain as rosy as ever. Indeed, the Secretary recently told a gathering of 400 industry executives that the government still depends on their help. "We need you to make America a safer place," he said -- to roaring applause.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© Copyright 2005 Der Spiegel