Privacy SOS

Another DHS boondoggle: your tax dollars in action

It’s time to push the DHS over the fiscal cliff.

It’s not just the grotesque bloat represented by $35 billion spent on 17 programs designed to make the “homeland” secure from terrorism, with some $7.144 billion dispensed to Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) cities.

And it’s not just the eye-popping waste: by January 2012 $8.5 billion in DHS funds that had already been awarded was still unspent.

It’s also the way those DHS grants have accelerated the emergence of a surveillance state and nation-wide militarization of the police.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) just released the report, Safety at any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S Cities. A member of the Senate Subcommittee that drafted the damning report on DHS fusion centers, Sen. Coburn addresses this new report, which focuses on UASI funding, to “Dear Taxpayers.”

Here is some of what we learn:

The Urban Area Security Initiative grants were supposed to go to cities that were at “high risk” of a terrorist attack. Those cities numbered 12 when the program was launched by DHS in 2003, including Boston and eight other Greater Boston communities.

The UASI program which FEMA administered proved such an irresistible honeypot to those with political clout that by 2010 there were 64 cities and surrounding areas applying for “high risk” terrorism grants.

Were so many cities across the country really “high risk”? Well, maybe not, but who knows? Each contender for funding was supposed to be assigned a “risk” score, but those scores were not available for examination. According to Sen. Coburn, “DHS explained that the data was not in the agency’s possession, but was held by a third-party contractor.”

And what goodies were paid for with our tax dollars?

We know from other sources that the Greater Boston UASI communities used some $45 million in DHS funds for surveillance cameras. (DHS grants have been used to plaster the country with cameras, including in Liberty, Kansas, population 95).

We don’t know how Boston spent the bulk of the $173,318,428 that Sen. Coburn’s report says it received through the UASI program over the period 2004-2012.

Chicago and Cook County also went on a camera-installation spree. Some $45.6 million was spent on the “Project Shield” surveillance camera system. According to the report, after being hailed as a great success, its costs skyrocketed and then its technology pooped out in Chicago’s extreme weather.

Bomb detection robots were a big hit. The Olathe Fire Department near Kansas City used a $151,000 UASI grant to get one, despite already having two.

Columbus, Ohio bought a $98,000 underwater robot with its UASI grant.

Fighting terrorism is such hard work that FEMA decided funds could be used to send people to “HALO Counter-terrorism Summits” in Paradise Point Resort and Spa on an island near San Diego. There they got to experience “Hollywood Magic” being utilized to simulate “a real-life terrorism event.”

When Hollywood was not at hand, the more artistically-inclined communities could get a grant to do their own thing.

Hence Jackson, Florida received DHS funding to make videos. “Domestic Terrorism: First line of Defense” gave advice for spotting would-be terrorists. Someone who seems “alone and nervous” or who may be “mumbling prayers” is definitely suspicious, as are people “of average or above average intelligence” or who appear to display “conspicuous adaptation to western culture and values.”

Equally outlandish are expenditures that have enriched a company in Pittsfield, MA.

Lenco produces the 16,000 pound armored truck called the BearCat, which turns out to be coveted by police departments in such localities as Keene, New Hampshire. Over the objections of many residents, the Keene police chief said it was necessary to use a $285,933 UASI grant on a BearCat because the annual Pumpkin Festival was a possible target of terrorists.

No doubt the DHS was the sugar daddy that paid for this BearCat to visit an elementary school in Auburn, MA. And according to the report, one county in Washington State uses its newly-acquired BearCat to pull over drunk drivers.

So lucrative have the DHS grants been to Lenco, which has to date supplied the $250,000 plus vehicles to 300 law enforcement agencies, that the company promotes “unlimited, personalized grant consulting” and “unlimited reviews of grant applications” on its website.

Police departments are also using DHS grants to equip themselves with Long-Range Accoustic Devices (LRAs) for crowd control. Do they expect terrorists to stage a demonstration?

And on the menu of favorite toys? Drones!

Miami-Dade, Seattle and Montgomery County, Texas have already received theirs, thanks to our tax dollars.

Unless we can pull the plug on this funding extravaganza, there may soon be a drone coming to a “high risk” – or not so high risk – city near you.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.