Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 6, 2012

Senator Coburn gives a second warning to homeland security

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on December 6, 2012

Senator Tom Coburn fired another warning shot over the bow of the USS Homeland Security Enterprise.

On December 4th, the man likely to become ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in US Cities.” The 54 page report — well worth reading — “exposes misguided and wasteful spending” in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant programs.

As if to emphasize “misguided and wasteful,” the cover features a toy truck, a toy 4 wheeler, a toy police helicopter, and a small R2D2 robot.

Coburn uasi report

The toys are immediately outside the US Capitol building. I’m not sure what that image is supposed to symbolize. It could mean somebody’s been playing around with Congress. Or maybe it is supposed to be a metaphor for the way Congress treats homeland security.


The UASI report is the senator’s second recent warning to the homeland security enterprise.

Last October, he released “Federal Support For And Involvement In State And Local Fusion Centers.” That report questioned federal funding for fusion centers and concluded, among other things, that fusion centers do not contribute much to federal counterterrorism effectiveness, and DHS does not know how much it spent on fusion center support. (Spending estimates ranged — if “ranged” is the correct word here — from $289 million to $1.4 billion.)

The Fusion Center report hit a nerve. Within a week of its release, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs Association, Major Cities Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs, National Governors Association Homeland Security Advisers Counsel, National Narcotics Officers Coalition Association, National Fusion Center Association, and the Association Of State Criminal Investigative Agencies issued a “joint statement” disagreeing with the report. (Eight public safety associations agreeing on anything in less than a week must be a world record.)

Their statement said, in part, “Simply put, the report displays a fundamental disconnect and severe misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting state and locally owned and operated fusion centers and the critical role that fusion centers play in the national counterterrorism effort.”

Media attention to the Fusion Center report lasted about a week. I wonder how long interest in the UASI report will last.


The UASI report has lots of material to provoke media outrage.

Some of the stories of questionable UASI expenditures are old news – for example the one about 13 sno-cone machines (p. 31). Other “questionable projects” were new – at least to me.

One city produced a series of videos titled “A Tale of Disaster and Preparedness.” The UASI report complains the “little more than common sense suggestions” in the video are “presented as a steady stream of jokes….” (p. 32).

I thought the preparedness videos were innocently compelling – sort of like Apple versus PC commercials. But as Will Rogers might have said, one person’s joke is another person’s misused taxpayer funds.

There was a somewhat too long description of a $1000, UASI allowable expense, entrance fee for a five day counterterrorism summit held on an island near San Diego. The Summit featured “40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit.” (p. 25)

The report even found some UASI money was apparently spent on “a true pork project – a hog catcher in Liberty County [Texas],” used (according to another source) to aid in catching and controlling unruly swine at holding sites. (p. 24)


There are many other examples of UASI spending for things and activities that at a minimum activate a reader’s WTF response. But beyond the sometimes surreal stories, the report – addressed to “Dear Taxpayer” – is a serious critique of the $7 billion spent on the UASI programs over the past decade.

Part 2 of the report: “The Politics of Risk” discusses the role of political influence in determining how homeland security money is allocated.

Tom Ridge is quoted as saying he was looking for a grant formula that gets “218 votes in the House or 51 votes Senate….”  Anyone still operating under the assumption that grant awards are – or ever were – based on objective measures of threat or vulnerability or consequence can benefit from spending time with Part 2.

Part 3 asks whether UASI grants have made the nation safer.

This chapter is the latest cover of the “Nobody Knows Whether Homeland Security Spending Is A Worthwhile Investment” song. The report (later) even brings up the Mueller and Stewart critique about acceptable and unacceptable risk. I thought their analysis was anathema in DHS and in Congress. Maybe not everywhere.

Part 3 also describes how homeland security money expands the militarization of state and local law enforcement, including the use of drones and “Long-Range Acoustic Devices” (i.e., sound cannons) in urban areas.

Part 4 was a bit disappointing. It offered a recycled critique that FEMA ineffectively manages grant programs, and shows a surprisingly naïve understanding of how measuring homeland security preparedness is different from measuring risk in the finance and insurance industries. The report avoids trying to explain the causes of this “mismanagement;” saying instead, “It is unclear why FEMA continues to have difficulties in [measuring the effectiveness of its grant programs] considering the experience and expertise of the private sector that is available to inform FEMA’s own efforts.”

How about “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted?”

I thought the report all but gave up in Part 5: “Conclusions and Recommendations.” I did not see anything new here in the slightly more than one page final section.

DHS needs to address A, B, C…
DHS needs to demand Q, R & S from local and state partners…
DHS needs to implement a systematic approach to X, Y & Z…

Yes, DHS ought to do all those things.

But what is that old saying about insanity? About doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results? Those recommendations are not new insights.


The UASI report missed an opportunity to break new ground in the decade long search for ways to bring more rigor, order, rationality, and common sense to the homeland security grant process.

On page 5, one finds this nugget of realpolitik:

“Any blame for problems in the UASI program, however, also falls on Congress, which is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent, or whether it was ever needed in the first place. With so few accountability measures in place, there is almost no way to ensure taxpayers are getting value for their money, and more importantly, whether they are safer.”

The report blames the members of Congress for being more interested in sending money to constituents than figuring out the usefulness of those expenditures.

So what does the report recommend Congress should do to fix this primal cause of the UASI allocation problem?

The only recommendation I could find was in the last sentence of the report: Congress needs to … “demand answers.”


Lorelei Kelly describes in another document  called  “Congress’ Wicked Problems,” — also released on December 4th — how and why Congress has become incapacitated, despised and obsolete.   She argues in its present state, Congress “cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.”

Kelly’s essay is especially worth reading in conjunction with the UASI report.

Someone who is sick probably can’t get better by demanding that other people get healthy.

Maybe the next step Congress could take to remedy the significant issues raised in the UASI report is to heal itself first.

I wonder if that healing will be on the agenda of the new ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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Comment by William R. Cummming

December 6, 2012 @ 9:37 am

Sounds like these and recent other reports are LEAA [Law Enforcement AA part of DoJ] redux! Most of DoJ is badly led administratively and managed. Just because you went to law school does not mean you are equipped to do either.

Well that stated why is it so surprising that FEMA as a key grant administrative unit does so poorly? A short history!
Outside of the Stafford Act FEMA has always had very few grant programs. One that strikes the memory is the civil defense effort that ran from 1951-1994 and still survives in other grant programs. That program once it lost its strategic rationale with the formal adoption of MAD [mutual assured destruction] in 1972 under Nixon and Kissinger [don’t laugh as it is still US strategic doctrine] the civil defense grants gradually became treated by the STATES and their local governments as General Revenue sharing with almost no enforcement of grant terms by FEMA’s predecessor DCPA or then FEMA!
Grants under the STAFFORD ACT and the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 [Public Law 93-288] still partially in effect were always treated as the President’s only grant program and exempt from the OMB Grant Circular process and grant law. It is true that it is the only grant structure to the STATES and their local governments that the President can trigger by a disaster or emergency declaration.
When brought to heal technically by OMB in the 80’s the disaster grant program was still largely administered by FEMA staff that had never read and never been trained on and never understood the OMB grant circulars. A valient effort in the Procurement Section by the deceased Charles McNulty largely failed. And efforts by the procurement staff of FEMA led by Pat English, now long retired, and her predecssors largely failed in trying to get administrative control over the technical aspects of all FEMA grant programs including the civil defense grants and the disaster assistance grants. By the way of three main vehicles of acquiring goods and services for the FEDS, contracts, cooperative agreements, and grants the latter is the least restrictive and often a fire and forget process. And of course a weak and understaffed OIG in FEMA became 60% of a weak understaffed OIG in DHS.

Few in FEMA understood cognizant agency requirements, the single audit act, or other similiar requirements.

FEMA is not without some bureacratic power. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. In the land of those with low budgets, the moneybags of FEMA is king. And FEMA of course allows unlike other federal agencies OFAs on mission assignment or STATES and their local governments to somehow forget to mention FEMA when projects and their signage are installed. One of the mysteries of FEMA is that despite its giving money in grant form to the STATES with their local governments being subgrantees the normal rules don’t apply to these grants in enforcing them.

Another great statutory scheme that FEMA and the STATEs escaped was the CASH MANAGEMENT IMPROVEMENT ACT requires STATES and other grantees of the federal government to prevent buildup of federal grant funds without expedited outlays. Again FEMA does not enforce that statute on administration of diaster outlays just as it does not enforce the cost-share or duplication of benefits provisions of the Stafford Act. Hey, no wonder it doesn’t take much skill to administer the ATM portion of FEMA.
And if you need convincing just look at the FTE in
FEMA devoted to technical knowledge of grantsmanship. Never so few!
And yes this the Congressional design of the Committees that oversee FEMA grant programs and disaster relief.
In 1973 the Federal Court of Claims in Texas v. US ruled that the federal state agreement signed in every disaster or emergency declared by the President is a contract. Let’s just honor that decision and have FEMA execute even in advance of a disaster those contracts with the states [this would speed up response] and then if necessary provide disaster specific provisions for that event.

And I realize this may be obeyed in the breach by the IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY but the STAFFORD ACT has never been specifically amended to cover public health emergencies, radiological emergencies [despite a request by the NGA and NEMA to do so] or terrorist events and incidents.

Yes blind men touching different parts of the elephant describe the beast differently.

Comment by William R. Cummming

December 6, 2012 @ 9:42 am

And perhaps I should have mentioned the almost $10-20B in obligated but unspent FEMA grants money with the STATES that could be rapidly, and should be rapidly, deobligated for Hurricane Sandy.

FEMA is not acutually sure how many open disasters there are, nor how much the STATES hold in obligated but unspent funding.

Time will tell!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 6, 2012 @ 11:00 am

Truly how can anyone really be surprised? UASI was the gift that kept on giving. With no true accountability and no skin in the game so to speak, political leaders will continue to fund a plethora of questionable activities.

It’s little wonder that there is waste, fraud, and abuse. Kind of reminds me of the rant by Tim Blake Nelson as Danny Dalton in the movie SYRIANA;
“Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win.”.

Is it corruption or incompetence? Or is it simply the way pork is redistributed? Its tough not being cynical. And yet, Federal workers are given their marching orders for holiday behavior. So there are ethics briefings about $10.00 gifts from seniors to subordinates and prohibiting the inverse but hey, DHS does not know how much it spent on…

So drone on about the fiscal cliff, raise my taxes and be sure to get me my Congressional insider trading brochure. Sardonic rhetoric aside, grants play an important role in progress. Without grants there would be little accomplished in a lot of areas. Grant funding has made us healthier, smarter, and more robust in many areas.

However, when homeland security leaders’ priorities are to keep grant dollars flowing and maintain the revenue stream status quo, you get what you get.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2012 @ 11:05 am

Thanks DAN and great quote from Syriana!

The best smoke and mirrors is the largely misleading oversight by Congressional committees who are the authorizers even while behind the curtin the appropriation Czars make the real decisisons.

Who will guard the guards?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2012 @ 11:55 am

After almost 2 and 1/2 years heading FEMA/DHS grants office Frances Harmon reported leaving that post!

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

The Lorelei Kelly piece linked in the post–Congress’ Wicked Problem–is a wonderful piece of analysis.

By my estimate almost 65% of all programs, functions, and activities of the Executive Branch is off limits to Congress due to classification or deliberative process exemptions as in the FEMA declaration of diaster and emergency recommendations forwarding the Governors request. FOIA also cannot reach much that should be reached. Basically we have as former Senator Daniel Patrick Monyihan stated in his book “SECRECY” we have largely allowed a secret government to be created that frustrates the dictum “Government by the people and for the people” and threatens to answer the LINCOLN question whether such can long endure?

Comment by Fiscal Hawk

December 7, 2012 @ 6:39 am

For me the cover alludes to: The Land of Misfit Toys


Appropriate timing for the holiday season.

Comment by dht

December 7, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

Excellent Analysis (unlike the BS spreading around other sites on the internet)

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