THE HIGH COST OF DOING WAR
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, March 18, 2003 -- The new police chief Los Angeles acquired from New York came before its City Council today and along with its longtime top fireman made an emergency plea for millions of dollars for radiation detection gear and high-tech hazard suits to gird its first responders - firemen, paramedics and policemen - against "dirty bombs" and other terrorist attacks aimed at retaliation for America's war on Iraq.
The debate on a motion by Jack Weiss for an appropriation of $5.9 million - money that he first asked for in documents accompanying a failed motion he offered during the council's long debate last month on a peace resolution - lasted for about an hour. In that time, the amount requested dropped by $1.5 million during an unusual discussion.
Normally, a request of the kind made by Police Chief Bill Bratton and Fire Chief Bill Bamattre would have to go through public hearings in the Budget & Finance Committee and the Public Safety Committee. There were also no public comments offered during today's debate, although that is usually an important part of the process.
The scene was an odd one, with Bratton appearing to play the role of the sophisticated chief with 9/11 under his belt and now the hot new employee with expensive tastes that the council has to ante up for or look cheap. Then there's the threat itself: someone, sooner or later, is certain to try the uncertain mettle of Los Angeles, a city composed of huge numbers of immigrants who are likely to stream toward the borders if a serious threat materializes. They would want to be with their families, not with the gringos who brought us to war for reasons that were partly based on disinformation and partly on personal revenge.
But the biggest surprise was that the in the space of an hour the cost of the detection units fell from an initial $1,500 to $300, and the suits fell from $7,000 to $2,000. There was no explanation for that except that initial estimates came from one source and the the estimates that were completed this morning, according to chief administrative officer Bill Fujioka. Not only did the price fall dramatically, but the delivery date of 60 days also collapsed during the debate to "next week," according to Bamattre. It was unclear why the Big Bills hadn't told Weiss of the newly-reduced cost when he offered his motion seeking millions more. Or were they just gaming it?
I own a few hundred shares of a stock called Emergency Filtration (EMFP), a Las Vegas firm that sells gas masks to the Pentagon that are able to screen nanoparticles - anthrax, sarin, or just about any airborne terrorist material. As I listened to the debate, it seemed as though the salesman for these devices was hovering somewhere in the chamber. No one ever probed the fact that one item fell 350 percent and the other fell $500 percent in price, and that the new prices were only introduced as objections to the total cost was raised.
And when I thought about the fact that all 3,244 firefighters and paramedics and some 9,000 policemen in Los Angeles will be equipped to deal with a release of sarin gas or anthrax, I wondered where the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard would be. In the event of an attack by terrorists in Los Angeles, all of those military forces and FEMA are already equipped to respond. Equipping another 12,250 city employees to also respond seemed a little excessive. Has anyone on the council gotten campaign money from interests that represent the sellers?
Isn't it possible to let a little more air out of the prices? Since it's unlikely a "hot zone" will be discovered by the entire police department at once, couldn't a smaller number of suits be stored at the division level, or at least the lead patrol car level, to reduce duplication? Can't our planning take into account the likely help of the armed forces and the whole alphabet of federal agencies we pay to protect us from such threats?
And since the targets of such threats are usually innocent civilians, not well-equipped first responders, why was no protection sought for them? If I was on a Metro Red Line car that got hit by a sarin gas attack, I'd sure like a gas mask in a hurry - but passengers won't have any.
Clearly, some members of the council felt the same way, but they were hesitant to formulate their objections or stand on them. Councilman Bernard Parks, in his first day on the council, recalled that FEMA had offered the same equipment to the city for free several years ago, and he embarrassed Bamattre into saying that there was nothing in its budget plans that they'd like to give up to get the gear.
Councilman Nate Holden made a half-hearted effort to find out if that FEMA offer was "still on the table." Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who has been criticized in print lately for missing council meetings, proved to be a valuable presence as she won an amendment that says almost half of the $4.4 million will come first from funds that get replenished, such as by asset forfeitures, some from unexpended funds in last year's emergency budget, and from a loan from the Public Works reserve fund. No one asked how much was in that fund, or what a single terrorist attack like the one on New York would cost it.
There was a lot of talk about trees that would not get trimmed and sidewalks and streets that would not be repaired, about programs that would not be offered and the other hurts that are going to be the hidden or at least forgotten costs of the war on Iraq, which Councilmen Dennis Zine estimated at $60 to $100 billion, a figure adopted through most of the debate. Zine picked up a suit and a mask and held it up up, and then dropped it on his desk. It looked like a $15 raincoat and a $50 gas mask, not a $2,000 hazard suit.
Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski was the most committed voice against the proposal, reminding the council of the high cost of implementation of several programs Bratton is proposing, and especially the new Special Operations Unit that is intended to bring the city's growing problem of gang violence under control. Councilman Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti both amplified the theme. Terrorists of the native kind are already at work in his neighborhood, Reyes said.
But if an attack does come and there is a tardy response because local authorities have no hazard suits, the political cost would be fatal to any career. The problem is, war drives those choices; peace lets the hard decisions wait.
In the end, after 10 councilmembers voiced some reservations about the expenditure - which is not likely to be reimbursed by the federal government - 13 voted for it, with only Miscikowski and Holden voting against. Then Holden, as though in an afterthought five minutes later, changed his no to a yes vote, and Cindy Miscikowski stood all alone.