Romneys public safety chief calls for a targeted approach to fighting terrorism

It’s been a grueling half-year for Gov. Mitt Romney, who has taken his lumps from Beacon Hill Democrats over the state budget and his government reorganization plan, which was summarily rejected by the Legislature in June. But in Washington, Romney has cut an impressive figure as the National Governors Association’s point man on homeland security, serving as “co-lead governor” with Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. His success guiding the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics–the first major international event that took place on American soil in the post-9/11 era–gives Romney credibility on the subject in the nation’s capital. But so, too, does his plain-spoken aide-de-camp, Secretary of Public Safety Ed Flynn, who’s making his mark as well.

As police chief of Arlington, Va.–where the Pentagon was struck on September 11, 2001–Flynn got his introduction to the threat of terrorism firsthand. And his views on what the federal government needs to do to help states cope with this new threat, but largely isn’t doing, are getting heard. Flynn has accompanied Romney to Washington, feeding the governor notes during Romney’s testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in May, and spent time, as he says, “proselytizing” on Capitol Hill. John Cohen, a homeland security consultant to numerous state and local governments, calls him “one of the most articulate and forward-thinking chief executives in law enforcement today.”

US Rep. Barney Frank, who sits on the new House Homeland Security Committee, says he has been “impressed” with Flynn as an analyst of the issues facing state and local governments. “There is pretty general agreement on what the issues are that you have to focus on, and I thought [Flynn] was pretty thoughtful about those,” Frank says. But the Newton Democrat sees Flynn, and other local safety officials, running into trouble on Capitol Hill. “My problem is this: Homeland security requires a strong public sector,” Frank says. “I think there is this fundamental contradiction with the Republican right. You can’t bolster homeland security by weakening government in general.”

The 55-year-old Flynn’s attempts to spread his homeland security religion in Washington have been aided by the fact that he has many friends in the capital. During his stint in Virginia, Flynn earned plaudits for his handling of the attack on the Pentagon. But he has deep roots in Massachusetts as well. Flynn was Braintree police chief from 1987 to 1993, and then became Chelsea’s police chief for the next four years. The good will he built in those two stints has smoothed his path in Boston.

But the message he’s peddling in the nation’s capital is a tougher sell. He says that the federal government isn’t doing nearly enough to provide states with useful intelligence, to fund state security efforts, to divvy up what federal funding it does provide in a cost-effective manner, and to guide states in how to spend it.

Certainly Massachusetts’s experience on the federal homeland security dole has been mixed so far. Romney’s “co-lead governor” status notwithstanding, Massachusetts has only received federal funding to cover about half its post-9/11 security costs. In March, the state was allotted $11.7 million to help local police and fire departments upgrade equipment. But in early April, Boston was not among seven cities selected by the Homeland Security Department to split $100 million in additional funding. After city and state leaders complained, Massachusetts was granted $16.7 million in May to distribute to cities and towns in the Boston area.

Even that’s a drop in the homeland security bucket. Flynn estimates that Massachusetts has spent well over $50 million on extra precautions since 9/11, and he insists on the need for more federal help with these costs. But he is just as concerned about funds squandered on security for show. Whereas many public safety officials in Washington and the states have spent millions in a largely symbolic effort to reassure the public, Flynn has resisted these gestures. In February, for example, when the US Department of Homeland Security raised the terrorist threat level to orange, Flynn decided not to post state troopers outside bridges and tunnels, he says, because there was no specific threat to a Massachusetts target.

“We need to get to a point where those alerts can come in different gradations of color,” Flynn says. “We need useful intelligence from the federal government, so that I know in Massachusetts that what I need to do in Boston is not necessarily what I need to do in Peabody. I suspect there are parts of America that are really blue and green, although no one dares to admit it.”

Flynn has the same attitude toward federal funds, which he thinks need to be applied in a targeted fashion, rather than according to share-the-wealth Capitol Hill formulas. That attitude guides Flynn as he prepares to divvy up state and federal security funding among the Bay State’s 351 cities and towns. “We aren’t going to start distributing money according to population size so everybody gets a little bit and we are all equally vulnerable,” he says. “We want this money distributed in ways that protect the critical infrastructure.”

Local officials worry that giving federal security money to the states doesn’t target it enough. Boston Mayor Tom Menino believes that the state will politicize the funding–much as Flynn suggests Congress would do–and disperse it to communities across the state, rather than direct the money to communities most at risk. “State governments use the peanut butter approach,” says Howard Leibowitz, head of intergovernmental affairs for the mayor. “They want to spread everything around.”

Buried under the who-gets-what argument is a deeper question of what homeland security funds are good for. Most jurisdictions have “made homeland security something adjunct or outside the normal responsibility of government,” says security consultant Cohen. “Ed Flynn sees it differently. He recognizes that we can’t continue the security guard approach with a massive response to every change in the threat level. We need to integrate homeland security into the day-to-day business of government.”

That notion, pioneered by Flynn, is catching on around the country, and is now dubbed the “dual-use” approach to homeland security. Every anti-terrorism outlay, says Flynn, should also support the regular work of public safety officials, law enforcement officers, and firefighters. That’s a lesson Flynn learned sifting through the rubble of the Pentagon.

“Our fire department in Arlington was responding to a terrorist attack, but they were also dealing with a building collapse, a plane crash, and a fire,” he says. “Those are core responsibilities of the fire service.”

So, in his Washington lobbying efforts, Flynn has argued for increased federal funding, but funding that won’t go to waste even if there is never another terrorist attack. The state wants to go shopping for security goods “with the idea that these are things that can improve our day-to-day services and not just our emergency capacity,” he says. “We don’t need more things to gather dust.”

In fact, Flynn thinks state and local governments can make their biggest contributions to the war on terrorism by going after more mundane forms of crime, “things like cigarette smuggling, alcohol bootlegging, identity theft, credit card fraud–many terrorist cells commit these types of crimes to make money,” he says. “Anything we get [from Washington] to help us perform those tasks more effectively will, as a benefit, help us respond to terrorism more effectively.”

Indeed, as much as the states need help with money, they need even more help spending that money, Flynn says. “We need a place that is the functional equivalent of the Consumers Union at the federal level,” he says. “There are a lot of vendors out there who want to sell us multimillion-dollar information-technology hardware and software. Hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be tied up in those capital costs, but we haven’t got anyone to tell us what’s good, better, and best.”

Or, he adds, what products offer the best quality for the money. “We haven’t got anyone to tell us ‘Well, here’s the Cadillac, but you know that this Volkswagen over here will meet most of your needs and it’s a lot cheaper.’ “

In that sense, there is still as much Chelsea and Braintree tight-fistedness in Flynn as there is Capitol Hill pork-monger. His dollar-wise approach to the homeland-security challenge should be music to the ears of elected officials seeking to restrain spending. But it is also a hard-headed analysis of the terrorist threat. If political pressures cause governments to spend indiscriminately on wasteful security measures, Flynn says, states like Massachusetts will find themselves unable to dig out of the fiscal mess they’re in. That, he says, will be as much of a disaster as any dirty bomb.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
“The terrorists don’t have to attack us ever again,” he says. “All they have to do is allow us to bankrupt ourselves, which anyone monitoring the economies of the states right now will see is an achievable goal.”

Shawn Zeller is a staff correspondent at Government Executive.