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After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the American government opened its wallet wide to fight terrorism.

Under the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security, each state opened its own homeland security office to receive and distribute millions in federal grant money that was being sent to the states.

Since then, South Dakota — a landlocked state with only 800,000 people scattered across cornfields, ranch land and tribal reservations — made out especially well. Since 2003, about $100 million in homeland security grants were given to South Dakota agencies and entities, making The Rushmore State sixth in the nation in homeland security spending on a per-capita basis.

It was a clear windfall of federal tax money for South Dakota. But whether the money was used to make the state safe from terrorism is an open question. Some of the funding has been spent on fire trucks and ambulances for small towns; for surveillance cameras for schools and police stations; on communications gear for local and county police; on anti-cyber attack security; on electronic fingerprinting technology; and to increase bomb-disposal capabilities.

All that spending came in a state that arguably has very little threat of terrorism. According to a 2010 Washington Post report, South Dakota is one of 15 states that federal intelligence agencies ruled has "no specific foreign or domestic terrorism threat."

And the most recent South Dakota Homeland Security strategic plan implicitly acknowledges that lack of threat. When listing threats to the state, the report names white supremacist organizations, and the chance that environmentalists might attack the prposed Dewey-Burdock in situ uranium mine or the Keystone XL pipeline — if they ever get built. The only worry over true terrorism cited in the report is the possibility that someone here might become a radical and build a bomb from instructions found on the Internet.

Under that backdrop, a federal government report released in May has questioned South Dakota's ability to even measure whether the homeland security money is being put to good use.

"We were unable to determine the extent to which the [federal homeland security] grants enhanced the state's ability to prepare for and respond to disasters and acts of terrorism," according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General Report. "The state does not have a system to measure preparedness."

With the tidal wave of federal homeland security money unleashed since Sept. 11, 2001 winding down, the most recent state Office of Homeland Security strategic plan reveals the office's worries that a lack of accounting of the effectiveness of the millions already spent could result "in the uncertainty of future funding."

Which begs the question: Where should future homeland security money be spent? And perhaps just as important, where has South Dakota's $100 million already gone?

Shifting priority

The South Dakota Office of Homeland Security, which has a staff of two, administers the millions of dollars in grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to state government and local agencies across the state. The office and its mission have shifted since 2003, moving now to cover any kind of disaster, either natural or man-made. And that is how officials describe the mission today. 

But the office founded in 2003 has long operated under a mandate only to combat terrorist threats in South Dakota. For example, an OHS press release in 2006, five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, announced that $7.7 million in federal homeland security grants were sent to South Dakota. “Our first priority for the money is preventing acts of terrorism,” said John Berheim, Director of OHS at the time.

That same year, the state established its Fusion Center, an office that synthesizes intelligence from different law enforcement branches, like county sheriffs offices and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While mainly benefiting in-state communication, the new center was subtly described as a way to battle terrorism on a national level, too.

"The fusion center staff will monitor and share intelligence discovered through local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, military organizations, public tips and media sources," reads the OHS press release from 2006. "It will also enhance the state Homeland Security Office’s ability to interact with the federally operated Joint Terrorism Task Force in Sioux Falls."

An archive of the OHS website from 2009 shows an "elevated" government terrorist threat level and talks only about its anti-terrorism work. "Our purpose is to lead the effort in keeping South Dakota free from any acts of terrorism," the website reads.

When asked by the Journal whether the OHS has apprehended any alleged terrorists, or if any terrorist plots had ever been planned or prevented in South Dakota, the OHS declined to comment.

The shift in focus of the agency came after anti-terrorism money began to be spent on products and programs that would be tough to argue were needed to fight terrorism, and not before.

After 2006, OHS press statements and comments began to expand the definition of the office beyond terrorism and into preparedness of any kind of large-scale disaster. That's where much of the money was going anyway, according to a Journal review of homeland security spending.

In 2005, federal homeland security bought nearly a dozen emergency responder vehicles, including a vehicle for the Nemo Volunteer Fire Department and an ambulance for Mellette County, based in White River. That same year homeland security grant dollars came in for "operations and safety" for fire departments in Keystone, Philip and Presho.  

In 2007, the state used federal grant money for cyber security, electronic fingerprinting capabilities, food source safety, intelligence gathering and analysis. In 2008, the state used some of the federal grants in part to increase capabilities to deal with improvised explosive devices, the homemade bombs that soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq confronted.

In 2011, the OHS paid $5,000 to bring an ex-terrorist and Christian convert, Walid Shoebat, to warn law enforcement officers about the dangers of terrorism in a Rapid City speech, according to a CNN report at the time.

In Rapid City, federal homeland security money from 2009 was used to install "14 high-resolution cameras for complex security at the Public Safety Building," according to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. In 2013, Pennington County received $50,000 that will be used to buy more cameras and a video mast for its Mobile Command Post.

Neither have been purchased yet, according to the sheriff's office.

Benefits of money touted

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom says much of the homeland security money has been necessary to keep South Dakota's local and regional communications systems effective. It's all about "interoperability," Thom said last week.

"Say something catastrophic happens in Rapid City or happens in Spearfish or wherever. Units that respond will have the ability to go to a common channel and talk to each other," Thom said. "It could be police, it could be emergency medical."

Thom said the communication upgrades and other gear has been useful during wildfire season, and also when Pierre experienced Missouri River flooding a few years back.

Steve Pluta, a former FBI investigator who became director of the state OHS in 2013, cites a series of exercises that OHS helps put on to prepare communities for disasters as evidence the money is being well-spent.

In an interview last week, Pluta mentioned two recent exercises, both envisioning an attack on the state Capitol. One involves a gunman storming the building, the other involving a chemical attack. Exercises like that bring together the local hospital and ambulance services, the FBI, the grounds workers that maintain the building, and other involved parties, according to Pluta.

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So, "if you're having a real-world event, you're not meeting these people for the first time," he said.

Pluta wouldn't speak to any specific man-made or terrorist threats to South Dakota.

Pluta says that even before the federal inspector general's report criticizing the state, he had already begun working on a better strategic plan for South Dakota.

"We created objectives that we figured would go for not just short-term but long-term," he said.

But there are other criticisms about OHS, and homeland security programs in general, including one that raises concern the money isn't being spent fast enough. The inspector general's report criticizes South Dakota for taking too long to spend the money it receives from the federal government. 

"As of June 30, 2013 the state still had 34 percent of its 2011 award and 72 percent of its 2012 award remaining," according to the report.

Pluta says construction projects using the grant money sometimes get held up. Projects range from "anything to do with camera installations with schools, replacements of door locks, security installations," according to Pluta. In one case, there was problems getting a communications tower built.

Other criticisms come over the nature of homeland security funding itself.

"I think we're a little bit addicted to spending money on the Pentagon, spending money on homeland security," said Jasmine Tucker, a research analyst with the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that researches federal spending.

Tucker adds that if less money were spent on defense and homeland security and instead used to fund education, it would create more jobs. 

Alfred McCoy, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the rise of the surveillance state in America, has written about how America's war against terrorism has ultimately encroached more on the lives of individuals in their homes and hometowns.

America's wars and anti-terror actions since Sept. 11, 2001, he writes in an article on TomDispatch.com, have "proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state — with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling the homeland."

Looking forward

Thom and Pluta both say that the period for securing grant funding for this year is still open, so they don't know what agencies will be seeking funding, or what type of projects will get funded. The OHS expects to receive about $3.7 million for 2014, about $3 million for local agencies and about $700,000 for the state, according to state Department of Public Safety spokesman Terry Woster.

However that money is spent, Pluta believes it is necessary. And he dismisses those who criticize security spending.

"It's not that we're just wantonly spending money on things that aren't of use," he said. "For them to say that it's being spent reckless is totally inappropriate."

Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or joe.osullivan@rapidcityjournal.com

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