Senator slams Homeland program for wasteful, frivolous spending

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A $7.1 billion Homeland Security Department program to make cities safer from terrorism has paid for 13 sno-cone machines in Michigan, a $98,000 underwater robot in Columbus, Ohio, an armored vehicle for a tiny New Hampshire town that uses it to patrol the annual pumpkin festival, and humorous videos that offered little valuable information for fighting real threats, according to an investigation by Sen. Tom Coburn.

The Oklahoma Republican, an influential voice in Congress on fiscal restraint and budget issues, is releasing a report Wednesday lambasting the department’s Urban Area Security Initiative for allowing federal tax dollars to be spent by communities on equipment and programs unrelated to directly fighting terrorism. The program has created “waste, inefficiency and a false sense of security,” Coburn’s report declares.

In an interview with the Washington Guardian, Coburn said the problem with the program is that it wrote checks to communities to buy equipment without applying a rigorous means test or ensuring that federal dollars were focused on stopping the next terrorist attack.

“Number one is, they don’t know where they are spending the  money, and there’s no oversight to how the money is being spent,” Coburn said.

The Homeland Security Department said Tuesday night it appreciates the issues the senator’s report raises and that it has already improved its oversight of spending but it “fundamentally disagrees with the report’s position on the value of homeland security grants and the importance of investments in our first responders on the frontlines and the development of critical capabilities at the local level.”

“As envisioned by Congress, these grants have directly supported the development and sustainment of core state and local capabilities … from helping to save lives and minimize damage during the tornadoes in the South and Midwest, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy to building a national network of fusion centers to strengthen critical information sharing and terrorism prevention,” spokesman Matt Chandler said. 

The spokesman added the Obama administration has proposed a new approach to the grants starting in 2013 that “reflects a more targeted approach to grant funding that will ensure federal dollars are being used to build and sustain core capabilities and address national priorities while incorporating measures of effectiveness to ensure accountability.”

While Homeland boasted about its fusion centers, the Washington Guardianrecently reported that a bipartisan Senate investigation raised serious questions about the quality of the intelligence products those centers were producing.

Coburn’s report cites numerous public news reports to demonstrate the breadth of questionable spending and to raise questions about whether it really constituted counterterrorism.

It said the urban initiatives program, which has handed out $7.144 billion over the last decade, was “designed to be start-up investments to help the most vulnerable urban areas enhance both their readiness and response capabilities” but evolved into an entitlement program that allowed local law enforcement to buy whatever equipment it wanted in the name of Homeland Security without an assessment of the risks, costs and benefits.

“Columbus, Ohio, recently used a $98,000 UASI grant to purchase an underwater robot. Local officials explained that it would be used to assist in underwater rescues,” Coburn’s report noted, questioning the counterterrorism benefits. “Keene, New Hampshire, with a population just over 23,000 and a police force of 40, set aside UASI funds to buy a BearCat armored vehicle. Despite reporting only a single homicide in the prior two years, the City of Keene told DHS the vehicle was needed to patrol events like its annual pumpkin festival.”

The report also cites examples where funding went to legitimate counterterrorism needs but was wasted through poor performance and mismanagement, like in Cook County, Ill., where $45 million was spent on a camera surveillance system codenamed “Project Shield” that failed because it was not built to withstand Chicago’s harsh weather.

“The technology was initially tested at the U.S. Open Golf Tournament in June 2003,” the senator’s report explained. “However, the mild conditions were not the ‘actual conditions’ expected for Project Shield in terms of weather’. The temperatures in the test period did not take into consideration ‘the extreme hot and cold temperatures experienced annually in Cook County.’ In short, when the weather changed, the hardware for Project Shield stopped working.”

The report ridiculed DHA for allowing cities to use grant funds to pay for officials’ attendance at the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit in San Diego in late October. “The marquee event over the summit, however, was its highly promoted ‘zombie apocalypse’ demonstration,” the report said, showing pictures of people made up as zombies at the event.

Halo Corporation on Wednesday disputed the senator’s assertion that federal funds were used specifically for the zombie exercise, saying while attendees could use federal funds to attend the whole training seminar the zombie exercise itself did not cost taxpayers any money.

“The report’s suggestion that Department of Homeland Security and Urban Areas Security Initiative  (UASI) funds were used to pay for zombie apocalypse training is absolutely untrue,” said Brad Barker, president of the HALO Corporation. “Absolutely no taxpayer money, DHS or UASI funds were spent on the zombie apocalypse demonstration. The Summit’s approval as a training event under the UASI program, and therefore the eligibility of law enforcement and first responders to receive grant funding to attend, applied to our in-classroom course curriculum, which comprised about 30 courses on counter-terrorism, emergency preparedness, disaster response, intelligence analysis, cybercrime, narco-terrorism, human trafficking  and more.”

Coburn said part of the problem is that DHS and its subordinate agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rubber-stamp requests without regard to investigating the true needs for fighting terrorism and have given local communities no incentive to return unused monies.

He told the Washington Guardian that the government needs to get tougher with individual agencies. “First of all, cut their budgets. Number two, you have the Congress do oversight. Bring the agencies up here, set some new rules on grants. In other words, ‘you will oversight the grants, you will make sure they’re compliant. And if you don’t have the capability to manage it, maybe we’re spending too much money on the grant.’”

His report cited the example of $6,200 in grant money used to buy 13 sno-cone makers in one Michigan community. “FEMA explained that it approved the sno-cone machines because the grantee characterized them as a dual purpose investment that could be used to fill ice packs in an emergency as well as to help attract volunteers at community outreach events,” the report noted, adding federal officials couldn’t say how many times the sno-cone machines were actually used for those purposes.

“FEMA’s lax guidelines and oversight made the agency a virtual rubberstamp for most anything that grant recipients creatively justified as related to homeland security—regardless of how loosely related. Not surprisingly, state and local officials are given strong incentives by FEMA to spend every grant dollar given them rather than return any excess funds,” Coburn’s report noted.

The senator’s investigation also question several videos made by local communities using the Homeland funding, suggesting they were more about entertainment than valuable counterterrorism messaging. One video series in Kansas City, for instance, offered “little more than common sense suggestions like ‘have an emergency plan’ and ‘know the potential threats.’ The message of the video, however, is presented as a steady stream of jokes,” the report lamented.

The Washington Guardian and its partner, the Medill News Service, recently reported that all federal agencies combined have spent a total of $16.3 billion on outsider advertising, public relations, marketing and videographer contractors.

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