Homeland security level photo

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An armored personnel carrier bought by a sheriff’s office in Washington state with anti-terrorism dollars was used to pull over a suspected drunk driver. A $21 fish tank, a hog catcher and a $24,000 “latrine on wheels” were purchased with homeland security funds in Texas. A counter-terrorism summit was held on an island resort.

Those are just a few of the examples of wasteful, misguided or questionable spending in the name of protecting and preparing the nation for potential terrorist attacks highlighted in a report released today by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

The yearlong inquiry into homeland security grants hammers the Urban Area Security Initiative, one of the many programs available to state and local governments for equipment and training that ostensibly is designed to enhance preparedness. The 55-page report concludes that the initiative, tasked with bolstering the defenses and response efforts of U.S. cities, has difficulty demonstrating that such spending has made the nation safer from terrorism and catastrophe.

“We cannot secure liberty and guarantee security simply by spending more and more money in the name of security,” the report says.

Coburn’s report focuses on the $7.1 billion security program, launched in 2003 to benefit seven major American cities, including New York and Los Angeles, considered top terrorist targets. The grant funds are administered and disbursed by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Other cities cried foul, and politics began to overshadow more practical spending decisions. Lawmakers who represented less-populated areas of the country demanded their own slice of the pie, and the program ballooned to more than 60 cities, including some seemingly far off a terrorist’s map of targets. Purchases challenged in the report include:

  • Police in Clovis, Calif., deployed their armored BearCat truck, which typically costs about $250,000, for an Easter egg hunt, while a sheriff in New York state showcased his similar tank-like vehicle in 10 parades over the course of a year.
  • Authorities in Columbus, Ohio, used $98,000 in grant funds to purchase an “underwater robot.”
  • Two drones purchased by Seattle police with $80,000 in grant funds could not carry anything heavier than 2 pounds, could not be flown above 400 feet and had a battery life under 10 minutes.

Overall, the federal government has sent $35 billion in grants to state and local authorities over the past decade by expanding existing programs or creating new ones after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Homeland Security Department has faced repeated criticism from government watchdogs, news reports and budget hawks that it has done a poor job tracking and justifying the anti-terrorism spending. 

Department spokesman Matt Chandler said officials there fundamentally disagree with the report’s take on the value of homeland security grants.

“We have seen the value of these grants time and again,” Chandler said. “ … FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and ensuring that all federal grant dollars that we disburse are used as intended – to strengthen our resilience against all hazards and make our communities safer places to live.”

Chandler said the department has learned from lessons over the past 10 years, and the Obama administration has proposed a new vision for grants in its fiscal year 2013 budget.

Coburn’s report illustrates serious problems in how anti-terrorism funds have been spent by also calling attention to some of the more eyebrow-raising purchases agencies nationwide have made with federal money. The senator signals his views starting with the tongue-in-cheek cover of the report and its array of children’s toys on Capitol Hill. 

With the U.S. Capitol dome looming in the background, a toy helicopter swoops overhead while two police-type Lego vehicles patrol in the foreground. The wily Star Wars robot R2-D2 wheels past.

A Center for Investigative Reporting examination last year found that civilian police departments and other agencies have gone on a buying spree since 9/11, scooping up military-style equipment that has transformed them into forces resembling small armies. The probe was one of numerous in-depth stories by CIR in recent years exploring the surge in counterterrorism and preparedness spending nationwide.

The Homeland Security Department provided little oversight of state and local governments as they spent federal money, the Coburn report finds. Local officials emphasized worst-case scenarios in grant applications to improve their chances of winning grants, the report adds, which has cultivated an attitude that it’s more important to spend than spend well.

The mayor of Escondido, Calif., last year said he wouldn’t have approved local dollars being used for a $250,000 BearCat, but it was OK since federal taxpayer funds were involved.

Coburn’s office concluded that both the Homeland Security Department and Congress have failed to establish ways to measure how federal spending made the nation better-protected, or even how much money should be spent by the federal government on state and local anti-terrorism efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, has spent $25 million trying to develop a method for measuring the effectiveness of homeland security grants, but three attempts so far have failed.

“It is unclear why FEMA continues to have difficulty in doing so considering the experience and expertise of the private sector that is available to inform FEMA’s own efforts,” the report stated.

Ohio State University political science professor John Mueller has closely studied homeland security spending and said government officials should do a better job weighing risks and judging how to mitigate them before making big purchases.

“If you’re spending a lot of money dealing with something that’s bad and extremely unlikely, and you’re not spending it on something like an ambulance, which you can use every day and is needed every day, then that’s a bad expenditure,” Mueller said.

Among other things, the report recommends that officials prioritize the most significant risks, implement a systematic approach to measuring preparedness and determine whether it’s being achieved efficiently.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.