The U.S. Department of Homeland Security may not currently consider San Diego an “at-risk” target for terrorist attacks—a rationale for depriving the region of some funding—but six local nonprofit organizations will be getting $320,885 in federal grant money ostensibly to protect themselves against possible attacks by international terrorist organizations.
The money comes from a $25 million slice of the current-year $2.5 billion homeland security budget that Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican from Pennsylvania, managed to earmark solely for security enhancement grants for nonprofit organizations such as churches and other religious institutions, charities and social-service organizations.
In a speech to the Senate on Sept. 8, 2004, Specter, who originally hoped to get $100 million for the grant program, said that “al-Qaeda has turned its attention to so-called ‘soft targets.'
“Soft targets” Specter explained, include “synagogues, train stations, hotels, airplanes, restaurants, nightclubs and cultural and community centers.” He argued that the government should do more to protect certain “soft targets”-specifically nonprofits-that could be considered vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Under the Specter bill, a nonprofit is eligible for grant money if: it has received a direct threat from an international terrorist organization recognized by the U.S. State Department; it serves a group of U.S. citizens who've been targeted by an international terrorist organization either in the U.S. or overseas; or the nonprofit's purpose is to provide necessary services in the event of a terrorist attack.
Only seven San Diego nonprofits applied for the grant, said Bill Norris, program manager for the San Diego Office of Homeland Security. Six of those organizations were selected by a statewide committee to receive grant money: the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park ($80,221); Congregation Beth Israel ($38,319) and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center ($76,558), both in La Jolla; Chabad Center of University City ($36,557), Chabad of Poway ($81,573) and the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County ($7,657).
Norris told CityBeat that none of the grant recipients had received actual terrorist threats. Chris Bertelli, assistant deputy director for the California Office of Homeland Security, declined to say whether any of the other grant recipients statewide (organizations in Los Angeles and San Francisco also received grants) had been terrorist targets, citing security reasons. CityBeat contacted all six grant recipients, four of which did not respond or declined to comment. When asked by e-mail whether they'd received any threats, an unsigned response from Chabad of Poway said simply, “No, Thank G-d.”
Delle Willett, spokesperson for the Natural History Museum, said her organization applied for the grant in anticipation of a collection of Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel—the oldest known biblical texts—and related artifacts from Russia, Jordan and France that will be coming to the museum next year. The exhibit, housed for now at a Charlotte, N.C., museum, has already been the target of theft, Willett said, though the perpetrator managed to grab only a replica piece. Willet said the grant money will pay for new locks and a new video surveillance system.
According to grant guidelines, the money can be spent only to purchase “physical security enhancement equipment” pre-selected by the Department of Homeland Security. The brief list of items includes standard security fixtures like motion detectors and video surveillance systems as well as heavy-duty protectors like blast-proof doors, bomb-resistant trash bins, shatterproof Mylar windows and concrete barriers.
The grant program hasn't been without controversy. Locally, San Diego's still smarting from having its security funds cut. “San Diego, collectively, remains at risk,” said Fred Sainz, spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “We have the world's most heavily trafficked border crossing [and] we have a number of important military installations.”
Norris declined to speculate on whether the $320,885 could have been better spent helping San Diego bolster its security. “The private nonprofit grant was a specific earmark in the authorizing legislation and not available for other purposes,” he said. “I am not in a position to second-guess the U.S. Congress.”
On the national level, the fact that so many Jewish organizations took advantage of the grant prompted criticism from groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. Morris Casuto, the ADL's regional director, said the ADL had some concerns about the government providing funds to religious institutions, but, he said, he was personally pleased that grant recipients now had money to make security improvements. “There is a rational recognition that some threat is present,” he said. “It is very, very difficult, almost impossible, to enumerate or quantify that type of threat, so I think what the government has done is acknowledge that there are nonprofit institutions that feel uncomfortable... that serve very large numbers of people, so that recognition has been translated into the bill.”
In an October 2005 story in the Washington Post, DHS spokesperson Marc Short argued that the grants were “unnecessary and redundant.” He said DHS unsuccessfully tried to pull funding for the program too late in the process. Short told a reporter that cities could allocate homeland security money to any “church or synagogue that faces a grave danger or risk.” (Short did not respond to CityBeat's request for comment by press time.)
Jewish organizations such as synagogues and community centers comprise the largest number of grant recipients. Of the 57 nonprofits awarded grants in California, 38 are Jewish organizations ranging from temples and synagogues to schools, community groups and cultural landmarks like the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Both Norris and former San Diego Homeland Security Director Augie Ghio said the grant program was sufficiently advertised-the Natural History Museum's Willett, for example, said the museum's grant writer saw it on a listserv.
But a handful of local disaster-response groups, including the YMCA, the San Diego Chapter of the American Red Cross and the San Diego Blood Bank told CityBeat they weren't aware of the grant.
Tina Friedman, spokesperson for the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, which received $7,657—the smallest grant award—said that although the national group United Jewish Communities worked closely with Specter to get the legislation passed, “they led a very broad-based coalition of secular and sectarian agencies,” she said. “It's not like only Jewish organizations were made aware [of the grant].”
“We had it posted in the media through the state to get it out there, but it was a very fast turnaround grant,” Ghio said. A request for proposals issued through the state Office of Homeland Security at the end of June 2005 had a deadline of Aug. 1, 2005. Still, Ghio said, “we were surprised more nonprofits didn't put in for it.” But, he added, “there were restrictions on [the grant], so not every nonprofit would have qualified.”
One day after DHS released guidelines for nonprofits seeking homeland-security grants, United Jewish Communities—an umbrella organization that represents several hundred smaller community organizations in North America—published a step-by-step guide urging synagogues and other Jewish community groups and organizations to apply for the grant. The 44-page guide includes a timeline recommending that grant applicants start lobbying for an award months before any state-level requests for proposals had been announced. The guide urges discretion: “For security reasons, we recommend against widely publicizing your efforts,” it reads. “Securing funds is behind-the-scenes work.”
The guide includes talking points for meetings with state and local officials and a detailed summary of terrorist attacks and threats to Jewish communities outside of Israel. There's also significant space dedicated to a stark prediction of what might happen should terrorists try to blow up Jewish Federation headquarters in a manner similar to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
A UJC spokesperson did not respond to CityBeat's questions by press time.
Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, said that when the grant program was first announced, “the city had several initial inquiries from the Red Cross Blood Services, the [Natural History] museum and many Jewish organizations.... The limited use and limited amounts available [a $100,000 cap per organization] discouraged many potential applicants.”
Donald Read, who heads the San Diego group VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) said he announced the grant at a meeting of VOAD member organizations but that the grant process can be a challenge for smaller organizations that might not have the resources to devote to grant writing.
Sainz pointed out that the Specter bill mentioned religious organizations specifically as possible beneficiaries of the grant, “Jewish organizations, which have been a target internationally, were natural applicants,” he said.
Friedman said that the grants sought by Jewish organizations were a protective measure. “Every organization in this country since 9/11 has worked to step up their security,” she said, “not just Jewish institutions.”