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Senate to DHS: No Tanks, Thanks

Although it is important for state and local police departments to remain vigilant and prepared, the revelations in Sen. Coburn’s report should give pause to federal officials contemplating the future of homeland security spending.

  • Michael Price
Published: December 6, 2012

Crossposted at The Hill's Congress blog.

$98,000 for an “underwater robot” in Ohio. $69,000 for a hovercraft in Indianapolis. $6,200 for “sno-cone” machines in Michigan. $256,643 for an armored truck (and rotating gun turret) in Fargo, North Dakota. These are just a few of the items purchased with federal dollars by state and local police departments in the name of national security. And according to a new report by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), none of them has made us any safer from terrorism.

After 9/11, Congress established a federal grant program known as the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) in order to make the nation’s largest cities safer and better prepared to ward off terrorist attacks. But after nearly ten years, the program has ballooned in size, providing funding to as many as 64 cities nationwide, with virtually no oversight and little obvious benefit to homeland security. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for administering the $7 billion grant program, but according to Sen. Coburn’s report, DHS has failed to track how federal dollars are spent and could not demonstrate how the funding has closed security gaps or prepared the nation in the event of another terrorist attack.
Such wasteful spending is part of an emerging pattern in state and local counterterrorism efforts that threatens both our national security and our civil liberties. Indeed, the Coburn report comes on the heels of another scathing Senate investigation of the 77 “fusion centers” operating in almost every state and major city. These centers are intended to facilitate the collection and sharing of counterterrorism information, and they have been heavily dependent on UASI funds. But the Senate report found that fusion centers have not disrupted a single terrorist plot and routinely produce “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate” intelligence that endangers civil liberties.
The Coburn report adds to this startling portrait of dysfunction by conducting the kind of thorough investigation that DHS itself should be conducting as part of its mandate. In California, for example, the report found that officials spent $6.2 million on a new license plate reader system but “could not explain how this acquisition indentified or contributed to the prevention or investigation of terrorist attacks.” And in Chicago, Coburn found that the county spent $45 million on a video surveillance network that simply does not work. As it turns out, DHS has given police departments broad discretion to spend federal dollars on “almost anything they want, as long as it has broad ties to terror prevention.” At the same time, DHS has conducted little oversight to determine how the money is actually spent or whether it was necessary in the first place.
While these projects have made little or no headway in preparing the nation against acts of terrorism, they have a tremendous impact on individual privacy and civil rights. Even if it works, such technology encourages police to track ordinary citizens and create massive databases of sensitive information about innocent Americans. This creates a dangerous chilling effect on political speech and perpetuates bias against religious and ethnic communities where the police collect information based on vague or discriminatory indicators of “suspicious activity.” In Florida, for example, the Coburn report found that police used federal funds to create a video encouraging viewers to report people of “average or above average intelligence,” who appear to display a “conspicuous adaption to western culture and values,” or who demonstrate “increased frequency of prayer or religious behavior.” Such projects can damage a city’s counterterrorism efforts by undermining the notion that the public is a trusted partner in preventing terrorism. They stifle the flow of reliable information to police and raise serious questions about the usefulness and legality of information that is collected.
Although it is important for state and local police departments to remain vigilant and prepared, the revelations in Sen. Coburn’s report should give pause to federal officials contemplating the future of homeland security spending. Congress should require better oversight and accountability for the UASI program and the billions in taxpayer dollars spent under the rubric of national security. Strong public reporting requirements combined with regular federal audits would go a long way toward achieving this goal and ensuring that federally funded projects are necessary, effective, and mindful of civil liberties.