The Bush administration has been doing a fine job lately foiling terror plots aimed at such high-visibility targets as the Sears Tower in Chicago and New York's transit system.
But just what are they doing to lock down Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo, the Amish Country Popcorn factory, the Bean Fest and, you know, that "beach at [the] end of a street?"
They've been watching those places, too, as it turns out, according to The New York Times. The release Tuesday of a report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security added fuel to the fire that has erupted over the recent 40 percent cutbacks of anti-terror funds to such prime targets as New York and Washington, D.C. It has also raised some serious questions about just what is so critical about keeping an eye on the Mule Day Parade and the Sweetwater Flea Market.
The inspector general's report said all these places are "unusual or out-of-place" sites "whose criticality is not readily apparent." And they're all included in the National Asset Database, which, as of January, ranked the relatively sedate Midwestern state of Indiana as the most target-rich place in the nation (8,591 sites), well above New York (5,687) and California (3,212).
The database is used by the Homeland Security Department to help allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-terrorism grants it hands out each year. Even with the focus on such low-profile sites as the Mule Day Parade in Columbia, Tennessee, and the petting zoo in Woodville, Alabama, the HSD's deputy press secretary, Jarrod Agen, told the Times, "We don't find it embarrassing. ... The list is a valuable tool."
The report found that others in the department believe that some of the older information is of "low quality," and it questioned a number of other entries, including "Nix's Check Cashing," "Mall at Sears," "Ice Cream Parlor," "Tackle Shop," "Donut Shop" and the "Anti-Cruelty Society."
New York officials, who have repeatedly spoken out about the reduction of this year's anti-terror grants, weren't amused by the offbeat nature of the findings. "Now we know why the Homeland Security grant formula came out as wacky as it was," said New York Senator Charles Schumer, according to the Times. "This report is the smoking gun that thoroughly indicts the system."
Part of the problem, according to the audit, is weak standards for inclusion provided by the states themselves, which submit lists of locations to be added to the database. That resulted in the least-populated state, Montana, showing more assets than states with much bigger populations, like Massachusetts and New Jersey.
And there were thousands of sites — including 1,305 casinos, 163 water parks, 159 cruise ships, 3,773 malls and 571 nursing homes — that the inspector general doubted should be on the list at all. Especially since many major business and financial operations and crucial national telecommunication hubs were not included.
A DHS undersecretary told the Times that the audit simply misread the purpose of the database, which is an inventory of national assets, not a prioritized list of the most critical sites, adding that it's just one of many sources consulted when portioning out anti-terrorism grants.
But the owner of Amish Country Popcorn, Brian Lehman, still wondered how he got on any list. "I am out in the middle of nowhere," Lehman said of his five-person Berne, Indiana, popcorn distributor. "We are nothing but a bunch of Amish buggies and tractors out here. No one would care."
Come to think of it, though, he realized there might be a reason: "Maybe because popcorn explodes?"