The DHS: Selling Fear And Uncertainty; Buying Sno-Cone Machines And Latrines-On-Wheels

from the blowing-money-fast dept

The Department of Homeland Security's stated aim of protecting the US from terrorism has been used as an ends to justify a variety of “means,” many of which do little more than wreak havoc on civil liberties while spending a ton of taxpayer money. All sorts of questionable “solutions” to the terrorist problem have sprung from deep within the DHS, including $430 million spent on tuning its radios to a new frequency (which didn't “take”), alerting various law enforcement agencies on the dangers posed by food trucks and hotel guests, and so-called “Anti-Terror Centers” that failed to generate any useful anti-terrorist intelligence.

The above list is but a mere sampling of the wasteful and useless “programs” created under the DHS' purview. Now, a new report [PDF] by Sen. Coburn is exposing even more wasted tax dollars and questionable actions by the DHS. “Safety At Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities” was published earlier this month by Coburn's office and is addressed to the taxpayers.

In the opening statement, Coburn points out that throwing money at the “problem” isn't working.

We cannot secure liberty and guarantee security simply by spending more and more money in the name of security. Every dollar misspent in the name of security weakens our already precarious economic condition, indebts us to foreign nations, and shackles the future of our children and grandchildren… We can only defend our freedoms by ensuring the dollars we spend on security are done so in a fiscally responsible manner, meet real needs, and respect the very rights we are aiming to preserve and protect.

Making a point about the rights that have been steadily sacrificed in the name of “security” over the past decade-plus is a step in the right direction. Sacrificing liberty for security isn't popular with US citizens, but we have been given little choice but to keep funding the very machinery that endeavours to remove our rights. Attempting to dig deeper into the damage being done usually results in the invocation of “state secrets” and FOIA requests are delayed, dodged or redacted to the point of abstraction.

Coburn's report deals with both issues, the rights erosion and the reckless spending. He points out that recent cuts to the program, trimming its coverage of major cities roughly in half, have resulted in some aggressive lobbying to restore funding to its previous levels. But, after reading what the money was being spent on, it's a wonder the funding wasn't pulled sooner.

The results of the investigation find that taxpayer money spent on homeland security grant programs has not always been spent in ways obviously linked to terrorism or preparedness. Importantly, this does not mean money was spent outside the bounds of what was allowed. The decision by officials in Michigan to purchase 13 sno-cone machines and the $45 million that was spent by officials in Cook County, Illinois on a failed video surveillance network have already garnered national attention as examples of dubious spending. Both were defended or promoted by DHS.

Other examples have not received as much attention. 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.

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.

Thirteen sno-cone machines and an armed vehicle capable of protecting a town from the terrors of the local pumpkin festival. Any study of government waste will turn up examples of “blank check” spending, where money is thrown at any number of ridiculous purchases simply because the money was available to spend. Just as common is the fact that no one of any import ever seems to question the money being spent before it's actually spent. Any sort of reflection on the waste is almost always limited to hindsight.

More disturbing than sno-cones and festivals patrolled by BearCat is the propaganda created with taxpayer funding that actively exhorts citizens to report their neighbors for a variety of nebulous reasons.

Some urban areas used their awards for local outreach, holding conferences, creating websites and posting videos on how citizens can spot signs of terror in their own neighborhoods. A video sponsored by the Jacksonville UASI alerted its residents to red flags such as people with “average or above average intelligence” or who displayed “increased frequency of prayer or religious behavior.”

Broadly defined “suspicious behavior” is a great way to make every citizen a suspect… and justify every violation of personal privacy. If you need warrantless wiretaps or a reason to indefinitely detain US citizens, all you have to do is start listing everyday activity as “suspicious.” The report also points out how ill prepared the nation would actually be in the event of catastrophic terrorist attack, thanks to the fact that FEMA itself receives funding through the UASI program, money that has been spent in an equally careless fashion.

In part, FEMA has done very little oversight of the program, allowing cities to spend the money on almost anything they want, as long as it has broad ties to terror prevention. In fact, according to a June 2012 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, “FEMA did not have a system in place to determine the extent that Homeland Security Grant Program funds enhanced the states’ capabilities to prevent, deter, response to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies before awarding more funds to the states.” Moreover, the agency failed to issue preparedness goals, intended to shape the use of UASI funds, until last year—nine years after the program was created.

At this point, despite several billion dollars worth of expenditures, the DHS and its affiliated agencies are still pretty much unable to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack. A lack of accountability may do wonders for politicians “bringing the money back home,” but it does absolutely nothing to achieve the stated aims of an agency created directly in response to a terrorist attack. The report states very bluntly that the initial intent of the program has become little more than a new source of pork.

Dealing with the risk of attack requires understanding our limitations and focusing on the best things we do to prevent one—a concept referred to often as “buying down risk.” For programs like UASI that means establishing a framework for conducting a risk analysis and allocating resources where they are most likely to make the biggest difference.

Unfortunately, DHS and Congress have often let politics interfere, diluting any results. Instead of sending funds where they can have the biggest impact, money is spread around to parochial political interests. This ensures fewer complaints and broad political support, but does not necessarily mean we are safer.

As long term, well-funded programs tend to do, the UASI program has become little more than a charade played out to the tune of billions. Instead of focusing the funding and intelligence in areas most at-risk for a terrorist attack, expanding from seven urban areas to 66 over the course of the decade. Now that the list has been trimmed down to 31, the complaints — and the dubious assertions — are flowing back into Washington DC, in hopes of turning the money spigot back on.

Describing it as “a mistake,” on May 19, 2011, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation sent a letter to DHS Secretary Napolitano objecting to the Department’s decision to end UASI funding for the Providence metro area saying that Rhode Island is home to 1 million residents and is at greater risk of a terrorist attack because of its proximity to Boston and New York…

Often, those lobbying for large awards cited unlikely worst-case scenarios to inflate the threats they face. Legislators and some in the responder community from smaller cities argued that funds should be disbursed not only to obvious targets like New York City, but also to smaller locations. Some argued that since “terrorist attacks tend to start in smaller locales” and sometimes remote U.S. towns, these areas also need homeland security grants to help protect their communities…

This argument was made by officials from the Oxnard/Thousand Oaks area in California. Arguing against legislation offered by several lawmakers to limit the number of UASI-funded urban areas to 25, officials from the Oxnard/Thousand Oaks UASI asserted that “since most terrorists do not live or plan their attacks in the same city that is being targeted, [eliminating funding] may actually decrease the protection of other […….] Urban Areas.”

Oxnard/Thousand Oaks has been incredibly active in the “give us more money” arena, stating that it is “a safe community, but the threat is present all the time.” This despite the fact that after receiving its initial funding, the governor went out of his way to assure the community that “no new information” about an “actual terrorist threat” had been received. It also asked for nearly $100,000 in additional funds to upgrade alarms and CCTV, stating that “minor security incidents have periodically occurred.” During this same period of “periodic security incidents,” the violent crime rate in Thousand Oaks dropped to an all-time low.

Here's a few more examples of what money can buy when no one's paying attention:

  • Texas took in $1.1 billion in homeland security spending in 2011, which covered such purchases as a $24,000 latrine-on-wheels, a hog catcher for Liberty County, body bags, garbage bags, Ziploc bags and two 2011 Camaros at $31,000 a piece.
  • A HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit held at a resort and spa, with an entrance fee of $1,000 per person paid with UASI funds. Counter-terrorism training was back-burnered in favor of tech demonstrations by visiting contractors. The only training that took place was a mock exercise utilizing “Hollywood magic” and a set with special effects, pyrotechnics and “state-of-the-art structures.” The “terrorists” being “countered?” Zombies.
  • In Louisiana, Jefferson Parish spent $45,000 on license plate readers — which have been used solely to catch car thieves. Ascension Parish received $2,700 for a teleprompter, which was characterized as a “national priority to expand regional collaboration.”
  • The FDNY claimed $143,000 in “backfill” overtime expenses based on estimates rather than actual hours worked.
  • The 13 sno-cone machines mentioned earlier? $6,200. Allowable because FEMA stated that could serve a dual purpose — filling ice packs in an emergency.
  • $45.6 million to Chicago for Project Shield, a network of surveillance cameras covering 128 municipalities. The program was ultimately shuttered.

There's much, much more in this thorough report, which details exactly how much money is being spent on a program with no end in sight that uses fear as leverage for additional funding. What started as a hurried response to a once-in-a-lifetime event has now become a vehicle for pork barrel spending, rights erosion and hundreds of “security” fiefdoms with their hands out.


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Comments on “The DHS: Selling Fear And Uncertainty; Buying Sno-Cone Machines And Latrines-On-Wheels”

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Jay (profile) says:

How fascism grows...

What’s absolutely stunning here is how the growth in spending here coincides with that of fascist Germany in the 1930s. Germany was hit with an “austerity bomb” called “The Treaty of Versailles” and a chancellor came to power without the people electing him. He took away unions, increased corporate power, and increased spending on the military in the lead up to WWII.

He learned all his tricks from Edward Bernays, who literally wrote the book on propaganda as evidenced by Joseph Goebbels’ successful rhetoric demonizing democracy and pushing the Germans to war. Everything was about security and the Homeland and whoever wasn’t with us was our enemy.

Now we see the tide turning. The US is going fascist while Germany is becoming more democratic with greater unions and proportional representation in their parliament.

Will we be going to war soon just to prove we haven’t learned the lessons from WWII?

Anonymous Coward says:

if there was money not spent by the end of each year, there would be a reduction in available funds the following year. we cant have that happen now, can we? therefore to ensure the level of funding, ignore what the money is spent on, just concentrate on the fact that the money was (totally wasted!) spent, then we can all sleep more soundly every night knowing that we are protected fully by the newly purchased sno-cones etc

Rikuo (profile) says:

“The “terrorists” being “countered?” Zombies.”

Wait…what? I’ve had to re-read that four times, can someone confirm that I read that to mean that a government body (of one sort or another) spent taxpayer money to train staff to deal with zombies, as in, undead humans who want to eat brains?

As for the “above average intelligence” signs? I’d be screwed over with that. When I was nine years old, I took a Mensa test and got an IQ score of 148.

gorehound (profile) says:

Really Sickening ! To bad this Nation is nothing but a bunch of Mindless Consumer Sheep.I have been warning people for years now about our Government and I feel that all I get for my work and troubles is laughed at and not listened to.
Just like all the years I fought Pollution.
This World is going to hell and I feel that eventually people
will be living in a bad B-Grade Movie Version of Mad Max.

Do you really think that this Spying Krap and Pollution and War and Bad Economy is going to just go away ?

NOT !!!

Anonymous Coward says:

And yet another program that could easily be cut/slashed to the betterment of the economy.

I seriously think the DHS is only good for scaring the citizens. I have yet to see any useful result come out of DHS and it’s ugly step-child the TSA.

Please cut these two programs or just dump them. They only spend money that could be used to better purpose. For example, how about NASA?

But no, the way American politics are going, if there is cash to be had, it’s another program that will never end. Besides, all of the juicy data collected from the warrantless spying is cool too.


Lord Binky says:

Ugh, I am really tired of politicians saying the same words and meaning different things. We really need a new word to differentiate the semantic meaning between the word
‘security’ that is “something that secures:protection”,
‘security’ that is “Freedom from danger”, and
‘security’ that is “Freedom from fear or anxiety”.

Because it is such a stupid word play where proposals to increase protection forces, is interchanged with freedom from danger, and knowing they are tricking people by their interpretation they will receive freedom from fear or anxiety.

Or in politician’s word choice

Because it is such a stupid word play where proposals to increase security, is interchanged with security, and knowing they are tricking people by their interpretation they will receive security.

It makes a difference doesn’t it?

Why is ok for politicians to show they wholly inept for their job? How they are unable to convey what they mean in speech, which requires the same essential understanding of English to write a policy (essentially a guide) that properly conveys its meaning?

I’m about to get back on my ‘Politicians need to be licenced’ horse again. I still don’t see how it makes sense that people think it’s right that a contractor be licenced to show certain level of competency, but when it comes to improving a government, it’s not necessary.*mumble*

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Binky, new words won’t solve the problem because language is a lie. It is a nebulous system of communicated symbols that don’t match just right. Every time you use language you are putting your puzzle pieces to connect with another person’s pieces from a different puzzle, so there will always be mismatch and room for ambiguity like these politicians exploit.

A new word will result in a new word like “security” you’ll have to eventually outrun. But I don’t know a solution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Time to pivot!

I think it’s time for the TSA to exit the security theater business and replace all their checkpoints with Sno-Cone machines. There’d be no significant impact on security, people would be happier, and we’d save a ton of money. By making air travel cheaper and more pleasant, we’d even save lives.

And, as noted, the machines can be used to fill ice packs in an emergency?a much more tangible benefit than anything the TSA’s done so far.

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