The Trump administration has proposed sharp cuts to programs that seek to prevent domestic terrorism and prepare localities to respond — a move that has come under increased scrutiny by critics in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
The Department of Homeland Security says, however, that it is merely re-working the administration’s efforts, and promises more effective measures to come.
While the motives remain unknown in Sunday night’s Law Vegas shooting that killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500, the event immediately raised questions about domestic terrorism and whether it is a case of home-grown extremism.
President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal included steep cuts to a number of grant programs run by the Department of Homeland Security that go toward terrorism and violent extremism preparedness and prevention. All told, more than $300 million is slated to be cut from such programs.
The administration has also folded two counter-terror grant programs altogether, and is in the process of rebranding the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism office.
A senior DHS official disputed the notion that the administration was retreating from the effort, though, saying a new strategy is forthcoming.
“We really intend to elevate and amplify our terrorism prevention efforts in a big way, because the threat environment is serious, we’re taking it seriously and we’re doing a full end-to-end review of what we do on terrorism prevention to make sure that our efforts are effective,” the official told CNN.
“We do not intend to focus our terrorism prevention efforts exclusively on one ideology. DHS is committed to combating both domestic terrorism and international terrorism and bolstering efforts for both.”
Nevertheless, DHS officials have faced numerous questions from lawmakers about the proposed cuts to the programs and criticism from counter-terror experts. The House-passed 2018 budget, which still needs to pass the Senate, largely increases or maintains the funding that Trump has proposed to cut.
Ryan Greer, a counter-terror expert and fellow at the Truman National Security Project, said while the administration deserves credit for not cutting the programs entirely, it also has not shown the notion of preventing terrorism to be a priority.
“To their credit they have not focused entirely on Islamist ideologies, however cutting the future year program budget and future year office budget clearly shows that they don’t prioritize the issue area,” Greer told CNN. “And I believe that their focus on a narrow set of threats rather than all forms of extremism will do us all a disservice particularly in light of the rise of far right-wing extremism, such as Charlottesville, and other mass casualty threats.”
Matthew Levitt, a counter-terror expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former intelligence official, saideven subtle changes in focus from the administration could have big implications.
“I would have preferred to see the federal government help facilitate these facilities at the local level through its convening power and its funding power, but if it’s going to abrogate that responsibility, then others will step in,” he said.
Frank Cilluffo, a former Bush administration national security official and associate vice president at The George Washington University, said there are elements of truth on both sides — and that while Obama administration initiatives could use an evaluation, cutting for cutting’s sake also isn’t the answer.
“It’s early; we have to see what they put in place of some of the existing initiatives,” Cilluffo said. “I certainly think counter-terrorism issues won’t be buried, but policy without resources is rhetoric, so we need to make sure that we have the tools in the toolkit to get the job done.”
Millions in cuts
Two grant programs — Countering Violent Extremism and Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks — would be eliminated entirely from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget under Trump’s plan, to the tune of nearly $49 million. The budget also would cut two full-time employees managing the program.
The administration’s budget documents say the program goals can be achieved through other grants, like the State Homeland Security Program, but those would also be slashed in Trump’s budget.
Overall, the DHS grant program’s budgets cut by more than $200 million. The State Homeland Security Program budget would be cut by $117 million, and the Urban Area Security Initiative, also cited by FEMA as a replacement for the pair of grant programs, would be cut by $150 million.
Similarly, the Emergency Management Performance Grant Program would be cut by $70 million.
A program run by the Transportation Security Administration, called the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program, would also be drastically cut. Such teams support security efforts on all modes of transportation, and also deploy for security of major events like sports’ championship games and Inauguration. Those would be cut from 31 teams to eight, totaling $43 million.
Nevada, for example, could lose hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars under the grant cuts.
Under the FY 2017 allocation, Nevada got $3.7 million from the State Homeland Security Program and $4.5 million from the Emergency Management Performance Grant program, according to DHS allocation documents obtained by CNN. The Las Vegas area also got $2.8 million from the Urban Area Security Initiative. All of those programs would be decreased by roughly 20%-25% across the board under the President’s 2018 budget proposal.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department also got $500,000 from the Countering Violent Extremism grants, a program that would not be funded at all in fiscal year 2018.
In testimony before Congress last month, acting Secretary Elaine Duke told lawmakers that administration is evaluating its approach to preventing terrorism going forward — and she and other officials have begun calling it “terrorism prevention” instead of “countering violent extremism.”
“Americans do not want us to simply stop violent plots, they want us to keep them from materializing in the first place,” Duke said in her prepared testimony. “As part of this effort, we have launched an end-to-end review of all DHS ‘countering violent extremism’ or CVE programs.”