by Dylan Murphy
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Congress passed legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its mission was simple to protect the United States from any future terrorist attacks.
It now employs over 240,000 people to carry out five core security missions. Number one is to prevent terrorism and enhance security. This is closely followed by managing US borders and administering immigration law to safeguarding cyberspace and ensuring resilience to natural disasters.
The Department of Homeland Security has become the third largest Federal department bringing together 22 different Federal agencies and has a huge billion dollar budget.
Recent events have cast shadows over the Department of Homeland Security and suggest that the third largest Federal department is not fit for purpose. One large shadow over the DHS is the damning report issued by Senator Tom Coburn in December 2012 Safety At Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in US Cities. Dr. Coburn conducted a year-long investigation into how the DHS spends its billion dollar budget. It is a devastating indictment of the organization’s leadership.
The 55-page report issued by Senator Coburn goes into forensic detail of how the DHS has spent over $35 billion of taxpayers’ money over the last ten years. His report pulls no punches. In his introduction Senator Coburn informs the tax payer:
This report, Safety at Any Price, exposes misguided and wasteful spending in one of the largest terror-prevention grant programs at the Department of Homeland Security – the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). Significant evidence suggests that the program is struggling to demonstrate how it is making U.S. cities less vulnerable to attack and more prepared if one were to occur….We similarly cannot mortgage our children and grand children’s future by funding unnecessary and ineffective programs, even including those that have important missions.
Shortly after the DHS was created its first secretary Tom Ridge gave a summary of the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program which is DHS’s second largest preparedness grant program. He emphasized that the importance of securing cities as part of a larger plan for securing America from terrorist attack:
We know that to defend the homeland, we must start by defending the home town. We must defend our cities across America. And the mission, the purpose of the Urban Areas Security Initiative is to build a sustainable and measurable increase in the capability of these critical urban areas so we can defend them.’
The UASI program has rapidly grown since its inception to 64 funded urban areas by 2010. Secretary Ridge noted how the program rapidly escalated due to pressure from cities wanting a slice of the UASI funding. This massive escalation in the UASI program has not been closely monitored by the DHS, leading to a rampant waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when the Federal deficit has ballooned to over $16 trillion. Here are some examples of how the USAI program has been spending taxpayers’ money.
Columbus, Ohio recently spent a UASI $98,000 grant to buy a ”underwater robot”. Apparently it was to be used for underwater rescues. Meanwhile, Keene, New Hampshire used UASI funds to buy a BearCat armored vehicle. This in a town where there had been only one murder in the previous two years. Local officials said it would be used to patrol its annual pumpkin festival.
The list of funds that have been misspent goes on and on. Tulsa, Oklahoma used a UASI grant to strengthen a county jail and buy a color printer. To cap it all, Jacksonville spent UASI money to sponsor a video which was supposed to alert local people to potential threats. It alerted residents to red flags such as people with “average or above average intelligence” or who displayed “increased frequency of prayer or religious behavior.”
Audits carried out by the DHS Inspector General reveal ”serious shortcomings” about the way grants have been spent. The report questions how many of the acquisitions made by towns and cities have contributed in any way to combating the threat of terrorism.
The spending spree has led many cities to purchase military assets often used in war zones such as unmanned aerial drones and armored cars. When officials in Carlsbad, California proposed buying a BearCat armored car one resident observed:
What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.
Hard pressed taxpayers who are suffering from wage cuts, job losses and cuts in Federal programs are entitled to ask tough questions of the Department of Homeland Security. Senator Coburn’s report points out very forcefully that there have been few accountability measures in the UASI program. He notes that, ”there is almost no way to ensure taxpayers are getting value for their money, and more importantly, whether they are safer.”
Senator Coburn’s report goes on to question whether the UASI program has made any difference to making America safer from terrorist attacks. Of course, officials from the DHS maintain that their funding has been well spent and that it has improved America’s security. Senator Coburn’s report makes the critical observation that:
Little concrete evidence exists to support such claims …Ten years and billions of dollars since the September 11th attacks, many are asking is the nation safer and better prepared and if not, how much more money is needed to be adequately prepared. Instinctively, FEMA and its advocates declare that the nation is safer because of all the spending. The primary premise of providing grant dollars is to invest in security measures that reduce risk and stem the resulting losses from a potential attack. Yet, FEMA cannot demonstrate how UASI dollars (or for that matter, any other homeland security grant dollars) have helped to buy-down risk and enhance the nation’s ability to prevent, respond to, or recover from man made attacks or natural disasters.
On 21 March Dr. Coburn spoke at a senate hearing which was the beginning of a four-year review of the Department of Homeland Security. At the hearing Dr. Coburn made the following observation:
With limited resources and a national debt of nearly $17 trillion, we simply cannot afford not to establish clear priorities for the department …we need to focus DHS on the clear national security threats facing our nation—including counter-terrorism, border security, and maritime security. It also includes preparing for and preventing clear threats like nuclear and biological terrorism … we must look at DHS’s programs to determine which are focused on them, and which are not. We simply can’t afford to fund forever programs that are not focused on clear national security threats.
Senator Coburn’s report is a searing indictment of way in which billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money has been misspent. At a time of economic crisis which has driven million of Americans into poverty, made millions homeless, and greatly increased social divisions within the country, the public should demand that DHS officials are held accountable for the wasteful misuse of taxpayers’ money.
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