IT TAKES A BIG agency to admit it has made a mistake. So the Department of Homeland Security's acknowledgment that much of the more than $4.5 billion it spent to keep the nation safer really just bought us some heavy, metal knickknacks is a positive step.
While we'd prefer mightily to be confident right now that the screening devices and people searching out ill-intentioned cargo in our airports, rail systems and ports and along our borders are doing their jobs, and that taxpayers won't have to shell out another $7 billion over the next few years to do it, we'll settle for a promise that this time the money will be spent right.
The Homeland Security Department was created in the panicked do-anything-do-it-now mood that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. From the start, it was clear that money was flowing a little too freely. Security systems were bought without being tested first. The radiation monitors dockworkers use - on the fraction of cargo that comes into port - can't tell the difference between banned explosives and cat litter. Baggage scanners were installed on the passenger side of airport terminals, requiring another whole set of baggage handlers; the machines can't tell the difference between certain explosives and Yorkshire pudding, requiring many more inspection-hours than predicted.
It shouldn't have taken the department nearly four years and $4.5 billion to figure out this was a problem. But officials say they are doing it right this time: testing equipment, comparing products and ensuring that screening machines are calibrated to detect only the substances that cause harm.
They also say that they are making progress in interweaving the various intelligence databases to better detect other potential warning signs, likely more important to national security than bolstering the attack points of the past. Terrorists don't often repeat themselves.
One hopes Homeland Security officials also take to heart the blunders and successes of the terror drill last week, when a wayward Cessna's flight over Washington sent the nation into its first Code Red. One lesson: It doesn't hurt to tell people what the danger is rather than scare them with primary colors that carry no meaning.
And the giant knickknacks? Perhaps the department could sell them as scrap metal. Or better yet, offer them on eBay as artifacts of the terror war, much like the many Lenin statues recycled after the breakup of the Soviet Union.