The homeland security market has an army of lobbyists working for its
interests in Washington
Brian Lehman's farm lies down a gravel road, between two fields of swaying
corn as tall as a man. It is in the middle of Indiana's rural heartland in a
landscape populated mostly by bearded Amish farmers and their wives.
Horse-drawn buggies are more common than cars, roads are littered with horse
manure and fields are worked by hand. It feels distant in time and place from
big cities such as New York or Washington, or even Indianapolis, two hours'
Yet Lehman's farm, from which he runs a small popcorn business, was recently
declared a target for terrorists. State security officials included it in a
list of assets considered potential victims of attack, most likely by Islamic
fanatics. That was a surprise to Lehman, who had previously never considered
Amish Country Popcorn on the front line in the war on terror. But he reckons
he knows why he was chosen: 'It's the money.'
Five years after the World Trade Centre fell, a highly lucrative industry has
been born in America - homeland security. There has been a goldrush as companies
scoop up government contracts and peddle products that they say are designed
to make America safe.
The figures are stunning. Seven years ago there were nine companies with federal
homeland security contracts. By 2003 it was 3,512. Now there are 33,890. The
money is huge. Since 2000, $130bn (£70bn) of contracts have been dished
out. By 2015 annual federal spending on the industry could be $170bn.
But state officials want in on the government handouts too. That is why Indiana
ended up identifying 8,591 potential terrorism targets (including Lehman's farm)
inside its Midwestern borders. But they went too far.
Indiana's total was the most of any state - twice as many as California and
30 per cent more than New York.
The reason is simple. With so much money on offer and such riches being made,
there is a powerful economic incentive to exploit the threat to America. The
homeland security industry has an army of lobbyists working for its interests
in Washington. It grows bigger each year and they want to keep the money flowing.
America is in the grip of a business based on fear.
Inside a fancy office block in downtown Washington DC lie the offices of the
Ashcroft Group. It is six blocks from the imposing buildings of the Department
of Justice where the head of the firm, John Ashcroft, used to be President George
W. Bush's Attorney General. As Attorney General, Ashcroft controversially extended
the surveillance powers of the state in order to fight terrorism. Now he lobbies
and consults on behalf of technology companies seeking to capitalise on the
new powers. His clients include firms such as ChoicePoint, which gathers data
on individuals and sells it, and Innova, which makes software for surveillance
drones and robots.
In turning from powerful official to powerful lobbyist, Ashcroft is a brazen
example of what critics call Washington's 'revolving door' - a process whereby
officials leave public service for the private sector, exploiting their old
contacts for commerce. 'It's become the norm that senior officials open up their
own shops in their old sectors. It can be incredibly lucrative for them,' said
Alex Knott, project manager for Lobby Watch, part of the Centre for Public Integrity.
In the new anti-terrorism industry, centred on the sprawling Department of
Homeland Security, the door is revolving faster and faster. Though the department
was created only three years ago, 90 of its former officials have already left
to make money in lobbying and consulting. They include Tom Ridge, the first
head of the department, who - like Ashcroft - now runs his own company. It is
a crowded field. In 2001 only two lobbying firms registered as homeland security
consultants. By the end of 2005 there were 543. Rules limit the ability of officials
to enter the private sector in their old field for at least a year, but they
are easily circumvented. They do not apply to those earning less than $140,000
a year and top-ranking officials often get around that by working in the 'background'
at their new firms.
In effect there has been a huge privatisation of the homeland security industry
in the US. It extends from surveillance issues to developing technology to working
in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where many jobs once carried out
by the military are now done by private contractors. At government hearings
last year ChoicePoint said it considers itself a private intelligence agency
doing the government's spying. 'After 9/11 we have seen the rise of the security-industrial
complex,' said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and former
Some aspects of this new industry and its relationship with American citizens
sound like science fiction. Dulles Research, another Ashcroft client, claims
its software can detect terrorists by monitoring everyday behaviour such as
travel schedules, credit card usage and bank transfers. It is bidding for a
government contract to monitor millions of people for suspicious patterns.
That is the tip of an iceberg. The industry has the feel of a boom town where
the outlandish and the mundane compete for attention. Four years ago there had
not been a single business conference for homeland security firms. Now there
have been 50. There is an industry newspaper, Government Security News, once
a quarterly, now bi-weekly. Venture capital firms exist solely to invest in
new and upcoming national security companies. Across America, universities offer
courses in homeland security. 'All this money in the industry is just up for
grabs. It's like a goldrush,' said Knott.
Of course, there is a real terrorist threat to America. There are many areas
of the country, especially its ports and airports, where money needs to be spent
to improve security and prevent a tragedy on the scale of 11 September from
happening again. Private firms have a vital role to play in this. But there
are grave concerns as to whether the industry has properly addressed these issues.
Instead, critics argue, it has trampled citizens' rights by invading their
privacy, created an atmosphere of fear and done little to prevent a future attack.
There have been many stories on the mis-spending of huge amounts of government
money, from bullet-proof vests for dogs in Ohio to puppet shows in Iowa. At
the same time US container ports still monitor little of what is imported through
them, and a multi-million-dollar scheme for all transport workers to get a tamper-proof
ID is two years late, has cost millions and still does not work. States have
also fought over who should get the biggest security grants from the federal
government. Midwestern states claim they are ignored and more obvious targets,
such as New York, say not enough is being spent on them. All of which adds an
economic incentive to play up an area's vulnerability.
This explains why Brian Lehman and his popcorn suddenly appeared on a terrorism
target list. Lehman reacted with good humour. 'We've really had a lot of fun
with it,' he said. It spurred a wave of interest in the company and - far from
hiding away from the 'terror threat' - Lehman put up a new sign to help people
find the isolated place. In the annual parade last month in Berne, the local
town, his truck was painted with a target on the side as a joke. In a bizarre
way, Lehman is hoping that he too can reap a bit of extra money from the boom
in homeland security.
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