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.
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.