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Of risk and pork: urban security and the politics of objectivity

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This article focuses on the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) controversy as a case study in the politics of risk assessment. It examines struggles among diverse actors–think tank experts, journalists, politicians, and government officials–engaged in the contentious process of establishing a legitimate definition of risk. In the field of homeland security, the means of conducting rational risk assessment have not yet been settled, and entrepreneurial officials from urban and regional governments use different techniques to identify local risks and vulnerabilities. In this contentious process, federal bureaucrats are responsible for determining how to allocate resources fairly and rationally to different cities and metropolitan regions, given that local officials have clear incentives to request funds and little cause to refrain. Although “rationality” is supposed to replace “politics” in making bureaucratic decisions over the allocation of resources, what we find instead is a political struggle over how to define, measure, and manage risk. For political actors, victory in debates over urban security comes from codifying one’s interests within the technical practice of risk assessment.

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  1. This effort to reshape the practice of risk assessment took place through public discussion and debate. Therefore we have scrutinized the public materials produced over the course of the debate, tracking how significant actors put in question the technical methods used by DHS to calculate allocations in order to increase their share of resources. We examined prepared statements as well as discussion transcripts from hearings held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the House Committee on Government Reform. However, much of the debate over UASI funding took place outside of Congressional hearing rooms. From the outset, elected political representatives and officials from the White House used the major media to make and defend their positions. For this reason, press releases, interviews, editorials news articles, and executive summaries of policy reports were also important empirical resources for following debates over how to define risk, vulnerability, and need, as well as how to allocate scare security resources.

  2. The DHS Office of Grants and Training provides a breakdown of the iterations of the various homeland security grant programs on its website.; accessed May 15, 2007.

  3. The 2003 National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets stated: “DHS … will develop a uniform methodology for identifying facilities, systems, and functions with national level criticality to help establish … priorities.” (Office of the White House 2003, p. 23; cited in Moteff 2004, p. 2).

  4. On the rise of “entrepreneurial states,” see Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (2002: Chapter 4.).

  5. Post-Katrina, Foresman also noted that the grants would serve the goal of “all-hazards” preparedness: “The dollars that we continue to provide down to states and down to communities represent dollars of investment toward capabilities to deal with the Katrina-scale events, whether it’s caused by a breach in a levee by Mother Nature, or whether it’s caused by a breach in a levee as a result of a terrorist event. And so, frankly, at the end of the day, we just simply see these as wise investments towards being able to manage our national risk” (Foresman and Henke 2006).

  6. Note that the number 260,000 is confusing, given the earlier number of 120,000 and the later number of 77,000.

  7. The methodology was explained in more detail in the 2006 National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP). NIPP defined consequence as “the range of loss or damage that can be expected from any incident”–including terrorist attacks and natural or manmade disasters. Vulnerability was defined as “the characteristics of an asset, system, or network’s design, location, security posture, process, or operation that render it susceptible to destruction, incapacitation, or exploitation by mechanical failures, natural hazards, terrorist attacks, or other malicious acts.” Finally, threat indicated “an estimated value that approximates the likelihood that a specific asset, system, network, sector, or region will suffer an attack or an incident.”

  8. According to the NIPP, the DHS risk management framework combined multiple elements to produce a “rational assessment” of risks that would then drive the prioritization of infrastructure protection efforts.

  9. “We cannot predict when IP [infrastructure protection] will have both the NADB and risk assessment tools to provide comprehensive risk assessment of the country’s critical infrastructure and key resources.” (p. 1) The Inspector General’s analysis of the process through which the NADB had been constructed helps to explain the presence of so many odd, “out-of-place” assets in the database. In the summer 2003, DHS had identified 160 “nationally critical assets” as part of Operation Liberty Shield, a defensive counterpart to Operation Iraqi Freedom. This list was then expanded to 1,849 assets as part of the “Protected Measures Target List” (PTML). Also in 2003, in a separate program, the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) asked states to provide data on critical assets as part of a state self-assessment program. The criteria in the data call were quite general, as states were told: “you should consider any system or asset that if attacked would result in catastrophic loss of life and/or catastrophic economic loss.” (p. 8) In July 2004, the Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) initiated a second data call—this time with somewhat more specific guidelines on the identification of critical infrastructure, but again encouraged states to submit any asset they thought was important (p. 12). Over the following year, states identified 48,701 assets. By 2006, the database included 77,069 items.

  10. In 2008, DHS used a similar allocation scheme, and it was widely accepted. Chertoff tried to strike a political balance in his public statement about UASI funding decisions: “I don’t believe all the money should go to the top five or six cities, because I don’t think that’s where all the risk is, but we think most of it ought to go there, and then some of it ought to go into, you know, the next 30. And yet I get confronted by people in city number 150 or 200 and they say, well what about my city; well, we have this here, we have that here? And they’re right; you know, there is a limitless amount of risk out there.” (Chertoff 2008).


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The authors thank the New York University Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and the NYU International Center for Advanced Study for funding this research, and the Fritz Institute for additional support. Mark Treskon provided excellent research assistance. Stephen Collier, Steven Epstein, Gil Eyal, Ted Porter, Akos Rona-Tas, Mitchell Stevens, and Caitlin Zaloom offered helpful comments on early drafts of the article, as did members of the NYU Urban Studies Seminar, the UCSD Culture Workshop, and members of the audience at an American Sociology Association panel on Risk.

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Correspondence to Andrew Lakoff.

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Lakoff, A., Klinenberg, E. Of risk and pork: urban security and the politics of objectivity. Theor Soc 39, 503–525 (2010).

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