The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the attacks of September 11, 2011 will forever be etched in our collective memory and forever serve as painful reminders that the enemies of freedom are many and our security often comes at a steep price—in dollars, lives and liberty.
We no longer can assume our distant shores from foreign lands or having the greatest military force in the history of the world are enough to protect us. We now live with the reality terrorists are within our midst and they may look, sound and act like us, but they hate everything we are and the values we share.
The balancing act between liberty and security has been tenuous throughout the history of our nation, founded upon basic freedoms granted by our Creator and protected from government infringement within the Bill of Rights of our Constitution.
But a new element has been added to this equation over the past decade that threatens to undermine both our liberty and security—excessive government spending and insurmountable debt.
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. Our $16 trillion national debt has become the new red menace not only lurking in our midst, but created and sustained by shortsighted and irresponsible decisions made in Washington.
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.
This report, Safety at Any Price, exposes misguided and wasteful spending in one of the largest terror-prevention grant programs at the Department of Homeland Security – the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI).
We cannot assume that because the UASI program has an important mission and a large budget it is accomplishing its goals, however.
Significant evidence suggests that the program is struggling to demonstrate how it is making U.S. cities less vulnerable to attack and more prepared if one were to occur—despite receiving $7.1 billion in federal funding since 2003.
After ten years, a clear danger for the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant program is that it would be transformed from a risk-based program targeting security gaps into an entitlement program for states and cities.
My office has conducted a year-long inquiry into the this grant program found that to wide of latitude is given to states and urban areas to determine the projects they will fund, and program parameters defining what constitute allowable expenses are extremely broad.
Congress and DHS failed to establish metrics to measure how funds spent through the UASI program have made us safer or determine the right amount to dedicate to counterterrorism programs to mitigate the threat.
While DHS recently established its first National Preparedness Goal, it has yet to develop a robust assessment of the nation’s current preparedness capabilities or defined performance metrics to assess the effectiveness of federal expenditures made to date.
If in the days after 9/11 lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years, I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program.
We would have been frustrated to learn that limited federal resources were now subsidizing the purchase of low-priority items like an armored vehicles to protect festivals in rural New Hampshire, procure an underwater robot in Ohio and to pay for first responder attendance at a five-day spa junket that featured a display of tactical prowess in the face of a “zombie apocalypse.”
As we prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in November, the time has come for Congress to reconsider DHS’s mission and approach to counterterrorism.
We must be honest with the American people that we cannot make every community around the country invulnerable to terrorist attacks by writing large checks from Washington, D.C. Not only is this an unrealistic goal, but it also undermines the very purpose of our efforts.
By letting every level of government – federal, State and local – do the things each does best, we can secure our cities and our freedoms. Confusing these roles, as we have done with UASI, leads to waste, inefficiency and a false sense of security.
We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that every dollar the federal government spends on terrorism prevention programs is spent wisely, yielding the largest improvement in security and best return on investment for your tax dollars.
Facing a $16 trillion national debt, Congress needs to have a conversation about what we can afford to spend on the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorism prevention programs and where to spend it.
The American people recognize and understand the limits we face. They understand that we should never sacrifice all of our freedoms in the name of security.
We similarly cannot mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future by funding unnecessary and ineffective programs, even including those that have important missions.
Tom Coburn, M.D.
American cities have long been symbols of strength, freedom, progress and ingenuity, representing some of the best our nation has to offer. The threat of an urban terror attack, however, has made many feel less safe than they used to. While most of our cities have never been struck from the weapons of terrorists, we know the possibility is a real one.
In 1995, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which killed
168 people and injured more than 800,showed our nation the horrors of a terror attack in a major city. In the years that followed, attempted terrorist attacks like at the Seattle millennial celebration in 1999 were thankfully disrupted by law enforcement authorities.
Of course, everything changed when New York City and Washington, D.C. were attacked in 2001. Americans understood that an organized enemy was plotting and attempting spectacular terrorist attacks in American cities.
For the past ten years, Americans have struggled to know just how to respond—including our leaders and elected officials. Sensing that many major cities were not fully prepared for another September 11th style attack, Congress gathered more than 20 agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
DHS was tasked with managing several grant programs, including the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). UASI was one of several new federal programs aimed at ramping up preparedness and closing security gaps in major cities that were most at-risk.
UASI grants were designed to be start-up investments to help the most vulnerable urban areas enhance both their readiness and response capabilities. Officials in one urban area said it was well known that the grants were “seed money” and “everyone knew [federal] money would not be around forever.” Success for the UASI program, therefore, would be defined by it growing less needed, not more. DHS has since spent an estimated $35 billion on its grant programs over the past decade,4 including $7.144 billion for UASI Urban areas.
After a decade in operation and many billions spent, it is unclear to what extent UASI and other DHS grant program have made our nation’s cities safer and more prepared. The question was given added urgency by this year’s significant reduction in the program’s funding and size.
Having grown rapidly from an early focus on seven major cities to as many as 64 in recent years, budgetary realities trimmed it back to 31 for 2012.
Large and small cities alike have been lobbying to get the funds restored to formerly high levels. This is especially true for cities that saw their funds dry up and aren’t traditionally considered the targets of terrorists, like Riverside, California; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Toledo, Ohio; Richmond, Virginia; Albany New York; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This report examines the UASI grant program, including a detailed review of 15 cities that have received funding through the program. It is intended to assess whether spending on DHS antiterrorism grants like UASI have made us safer, and whether the taxpayer dollars that have been spent on these programs have yielded an adequate return on investment in terms of improved security.
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.”6 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,7 the City of Keene told DHS the vehicle was needed to patrol events like its annual pumpkin festival. Tulsa, Oklahoma used UASI funding to harden a county jail and purchase a color printer.
In 2009, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania purchased for $88,0009 several “long-range acoustic device,” or LRAD, which is mounted on a truck and emits an ear-splitting sound. Local officials used it to disperse G-20 protestors, giving one bystander permanent hearing loss, but which they called “a kinder and gentler way to get people to leave.”
Peoria, Arizona spent $90,000 to install bollards and surveillance cameras at the Peoria Sports Complex, which is used for spring training by the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. The Oxnard-Thousand Oaks UASI used $75,000 to also purchase surveillance equipment, alarms and closed-circuit television, which it installed in its Civic Arts Plaza, a local theater and cultural center.
UASI funds were also used for mundane expenses, such as paying the overtime costs of police and firefighters or purchasing new computers for the local emergency planning office. 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.”
When asked, FEMA could not explain precisely how the UASI program has closed security gaps or prepared the nation in the event of another attack. 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. Because of this, it is difficult to measure the gains with any specificity.
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.
This report is a first step in identifying some of the problems that have developed with the UASI program in its first decade, as Congress and the administration consider reforming DHS grant program. In February 2012, the Department of Homeland Security proposed consolidating 16 homeland security grant programs, including the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), into a single “National Preparedness Grant Program.”12 This proposal, to which the administration would dedicate $1.54 billion, would be a major change in how the department uses federal resources to buy-down risk.
Given our nearly $16 trillion national debt, and the federal government’s many competing responsibilities, it is important that Congress carefully consider what we can afford and what investments on anti-terrorism programs will yield the best return on investment in terms of improved security. Before Congress embraces a consolidation plan, and allocates another $35 billion14 in homeland security grants, it is essential that DHS’s address the difficulties it has had to this point implementing the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) and other DHS grant programs.
Conclusion and Recommendation
As part of the agency’s grant program reorganization, DHS needs to address how the agency will continue to meet is mission to provide funding to areas with the highest risk of terrorist attacks. The agency will also need to demand that the local and state partners conduct better oversight over the federal funds that they are in charge of managing.
Finally, DHS needs to implement a systematic approach to define and measure the preparedness capabilities it desires, and then assess whether those capabilities are being achieved as effectively and efficiently as possible.
More than ten years after 9/11, the federal budget realities of the United States does not allow us to assume that any taxpayer dollar spent in the name of preparedness is a dollar well spent. Since the list of needs will always exceed the money available, we have to prioritize the biggest risks and steer funding to those cities and urban areas. Transforming UASI into an entitlement program for states, rather than a program that protect our cities from terrorists, is in fact the failure of imagination we were warned about by the 9-11 Commission.
Our inquiry demonstrates a number of basic facts regarding the implementation of the UASI grant program:
- The number of urban areas funded under UASI, while fluctuating from year to year, has grown since the program’s inception, resulting in resources being diverted from the most at-risk cities and urban areas.
- Wide latitude is given to states and urban areas to determine the projects they will fund, and program parameters defining what constitute allowable expenses are extremely broad. This has resulted in many states and urban areas using homeland security grant funds to make questionable purchases or offset costs that otherwise would have been borne by state and local governments.
- While DHS recently established its first National Preparedness Goal, it has yet to develop a robust assessment of the nation’s current preparedness capabilities or defined performance metrics to assess the effectiveness of federal expenditures made to date.
DHS is now proposing a major reorganization of all of its grant programs, including UASI, into a single grant program along with a request for an additional $1.5 billion in funding. This proposal offers an opportunity to pause and reassess a set of fundamental questions that are key to improving the effectiveness and accountability of taxpayer funds used to prepare and secure the nation from the threat of terrorist attacks.
How will DHS meet its fundamental mission to provide funding to the areas at highest risk of terrorist attacks for validated needs that enhance national goals? How will DHS better ensure that effective oversight of these funds takes place at the federal, state, and local level?
Finally, how and when will DHS implement a systematic approach to define and measure the preparedness capabilities it desires, and then assess whether those capabilities are being achieved as effectively and efficiently as possible? Failure by Congress to demand answers to these questions will continue to place billions of dollars in taxpayer money at risk and will perpetuate the structural deficiencies our review of this program has identified.
One notable training-related event that was deemed an allowable expense by DHS was the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit 2012. Held at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an island outside San Diego, the 5-day summit was deemed an allowable expense by DHS, permitting first responders to use grant funds for the $1,000 entrance fee.
Event organizers described the location for the training event as an island paradise: “the exotic beauty and lush grandeur of this unique island setting that creates a perfect backdrop for the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit. This luxury resort features over 460 guestrooms, five pools, three fantastic restaurants overlooking the bay, a world-class spa and state-of-the-art fitness center. Paradise awaits…”
While the summit featured various training courses for participants, the HALO Corporation explained that a top goal was to bring together technology vendors and possible customers at first-responder agencies. According to the company’s promotional material, “The 2012 Summit is specifically designed to allow more interaction between those who develop the products and those who use them.” Over the course of the 5-day conference, numerous technology companies provided live-action demonstrations in an effort to drum up business.
“In my view it’s not how large your company is,” explained Brad Barker, president of HALO, in a promotional video, “I believe you should have the exact same access to the people who need it. At an event like this it’s a level playing field. Everybody’s going to get the same type of access because it’s five days. Imagine being on an island for five days with a limited number of people. By the end of the five days you’ll be on a first-name basis with a lot of the people who are interested in what you do.”
The marquee event over the summit, however, was its highly-promoted “zombie apocalypse” demonstration. Strategic Operations, a tactical training firm, was hired to put on a “zombie-driven show” designed to simulate a real-life terrorism event. The firm performed two shows on Halloween, which featured 40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit. Conference attendees were invited to watch the shows as part of their education in emergency response training.
Barker explained that, “the idea is to challenge authorities as they respond to extreme medical situations where people become crazed and violent, creating widespread fear and disorder.” According to the firm’s public relations manager, the exercise was brought about “utilizing Hollywood magic,” and setup in a “parking lot-sized movie set [with] state-of-the-art structures, pyrotechnic battlefield effects, medical special effects, vehicles and blank-firing weapons.” Barker added, however, “”This is a very real exercise, this is not some type of big costume party.”