WASHINGTON – The Bush administration intends to cancel a $12 million program that helped police in California build an information-sharing computer network the FBI used to identify a suspected terrorist within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to people familiar with the decision.
Money from the same grants program helped officials in North Carolina improve local police and rescue services, efforts that earned praise from President Bush during his visit to the state last week.
The president told residents in Winston-Salem, which used $500,000 from the program to place high-tech mapping software and mobile computers inside fire trucks, that such improvements are part of a terrorism defense plan "that will make your community better." Bush did not mention the fire truck improvements, nor the grants program, specifically.
Bush's $2.13 trillion budget, to be announced Monday, includes no money in 2003 for the Commerce Department's Technology Opportunity Program, called TOP, said people familiar with the proposal, speaking on condition of anonymity. A Commerce spokesman declined Friday to discuss White House budget plans.
The new budget will target a wide swath of government for spending cuts in an effort to free up money for the administration's priority efforts to boost defense spending and homeland security.
Government programs outside of Social Security and other big benefit programs that are mandated by law will show an increase of 9 percent next year. But that figure includes huge increases for defense and homeland security. Outside of those gains, the rest of government will see a gain of just 2 percent.
Bush last year cut funds for the grants program, a favorite of the Clinton administration and many technology executives, by about 65 percent, from $42.8 million to $15 million, and the government ultimately handed out $12.4 million in grants for 2002. This year's plan would continue paying for projects already approved by Commerce, but would provide no new grants, according to people briefed on the Bush proposal.
In addition to high-tech public safety projects, the program provides for computers and Internet access to poor and underserved neighborhoods. The intent is to help bridge what President Clinton popularized as the "digital divide" between technology haves and have-nots.
The Commerce Department considers among its most successful grants the $1 million "Cal-Photo" police computer network in California, which allows investigators to share millions of digitized photos. Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice, which runs Cal-Photo, said the FBI used the system to quickly identify a suspected terrorist in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. The federal grant of $400,000, which ended last spring, "was a nice batch of money," Barankin said.
U.S. officials said Cal-Photo located in its system a photograph of the terror suspect, whom they did not identify, that the FBI could not retrieve because it had not been relayed to the bureau's own National Crime Information Center.
The FBI now has full access to Cal-Photo, which includes criminal mug shots and photographs from 32 million California driver's licenses and identification cards. Cal-Photo is now funded by police agencies and is a central tool for the state's new anti-terrorism information center.
Safety officials in Winston-Salem used nearly $500,000 in grants from 1996 to 1999 to help firefighters electronically keep track of sprinkler systems, hazardous materials and people in wheelchairs inside buildings that might catch fire. Computerized maps on CD-ROMs with these details are carried with mobile computers in fire trucks, and city officials believe the high-tech system has saved nearly 100 lives.
Bush praised the city during his visit for improving police and rescue services in the wake of the terror attacks. "The more the police and fire work together, the more likely it is your communities will be safe," Bush said.
In Louisiana, the small town of New Iberia plans to use $500,000 in grants to equip the police and fire departments with high-tech computer terminals. The devices will let officials quickly share information during chemical spills, such as the May 2000 derailment in downtown of a train that carried 23,000 gallons of a dangerous industrial solvent.
The city's chief administrative office, Janet Faulk, said there is "no way" the community could afford the technology without its grant, which runs through September. The city expects to have the system finished by the summer.
"We're in a poor area of the country," she said. "We would not be able to access that kind of technology by ourselves."