Protecting our petting zoos

July 14, 2006

Indiana has much to recommend it. James Dean and David Letterman were born there. The state's high-quality limestone and plethora of covered bridges deserve a spot in any Midwest tourism guide. But as pleasant as the Hoosier state may be, who could possibly think it's filled with anywhere near as many potential terrorism targets as New York and California combined?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that's who.

Yes, the same people who thought it was appropriate to increase security grants for Omaha, Neb., but reduce funding to New York and Washington also believe Indiana has 8,591 potential terrorist targets compared with New York's 5,687 and California's 3,212. That's just one of the curious calculations uncovered by the department's inspector general in a report released this week.

And what are these targets that al-Qaida leaders are thought to be plotting against? The so-called National Asset Database doesn't include the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty, but it does list such critical infrastructure as Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo in northeast Alabama and the Mule Day Parade, a Columbia, Tenn., tradition since 1840.

Administration officials insist that their obviously flawed list is simply a broad inventory and not the sole basis upon which security decisions are made. The database is not a public document so it's difficult to judge, for instance, whether Maryland's 1,692 critical assets are appropriate or not. One would hope the National Security Agency made it and Westminster's Peach Festival did not. But Inspector General Richard L. Skinner's findings certainly suggest that the list couldn't be the least bit helpful. Not unless we have reason to believe terrorists are likely to target golf courses (25 made the cut) or soft-drink bottlers (34 are on the list). Some states list all their schools as potential targets, while others list none.

The report reinforces our suspicion that the Bush administration's decision to shift certain security grants away from high-risk cities was ill-advised. Baltimore's grant was reduced about 15 percent in the move, but the reductions to New York and Washington were much more dramatic. Overall funding for security grants has also been decreased, and that, too, seems unwise.

In defending the administration's decision on the Senate floor Wednesday, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said he thought the high-risk cities had failed to submit well-written grant applications. Perhaps he should have suggested Indiana's civil servants offer grant-writing classes. Here's the real lesson: Phony lists and slick application forms shouldn't set the nation's anti-terrorism priorities.

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