Privacy SOS

DHS inspector general report finds agency violates privacy, cannot track grant spending, isn’t prepared for medical emergency

Image credit: Jamelle Bouie

A November 2014 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report finds that the $60 billion dollars allocated to DHS in 2014 for “homeland preparedness” failed to establish mechanisms to protect Americans in the event of a mass pandemic. While DHS is good at militarizing the police and bolstering a vast surveillance state populated with data fed to the FBI and DHS by state and local police, the behemoth federal agency has not taken appropriate steps to prepare for a major medical emergency. The Office of Inspector General found:

DHS did not effectively manage its stockpile of pandemic equipment and antiviral medications. In addition, we identified inaccurate inventories of pandemic preparedness supplies at component offices. As a result, the Department has no assurance it has sufficient equipment and medical countermeasures to respond to a pandemic.

The Department of Homeland Security has plenty of money for license plate readers, cell site simulators (a.k.a. Stingrays), biometric fingerprint readers, spy centers, armored trucks, and surveillance cameras, but somehow can’t figure out how to manage preparations for a medical disaster of national proportion.

And while DHS spends our money at an alarming rate, largely in what amounts to total secrecy, what results from spending lots of those billions of dollars is never properly accounted for. The IG report:

With the third largest acquisition budget in the Federal Government, DHS acquires more than $18 billion worth of goods and services annually…DHS leadership continues to authorize and invest in major acquisition programs that lack the foundational documents and management controls necessary to manage risks and measure performance.

These failures have created a situation in which the Department cannot "provide consistent and effective oversight of billions of dollars of acquisitions," the Inspector General finds.

Since protests erupted in the wake of white police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown in August, there’s been a lot of talk about police militarization and what to do about it. Much of the focus has landed on the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which gifts military equipment to state and local police departments nationwide. Billions of dollars of equipment has moved from the military to our police through the DoD’s 1033, even though there’s scant oversight or accountability to ensure the tools are needed and aren’t misused. But as the ACLU of Massachusetts pointed out in our 2014 report on police militarization, the 1033 program just scratches the surface of an accountability crisis in policing that we can lay squarely at the feet of the federal government.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have contributed substantially to the problem of police militarization; it’s not just the Department of Defense. DHS, for its part, has given over a billion dollars to state and local law enforcement for tactical and surveillance equipment, militarized armored “MRAP” trucks, and the creation of unaccountable, secretive spy centers where the feds share information with state and local police. The Department of Justice has been militarizing police for decades, as well, through misnamed programs like COPS—Community Oriented Policing Services—and its obsessive drug warrior culture.

DHS, for its part, is woefully mismanaged. The DHS Inspector General observes that the agency's granting system is completely inadequate when it comes to accountability and performance measuring. The IG report suggests DHS is dumping billions of dollars into our communities for police and surveillance, but doesn't bother checking up on how those funds are spent.

FEMA, for example, doles out money to states and locals through the 'State Homeland Security Grant Program' and the 'Urban Areas Security Initiative,' two of the largest DHS grant streams for police. But although "FEMA would spend $14 billion in grants" in 2014, the IG writes, "the Department has faced significant challenges in ensuring that grantees spend these funds according to federal regulations. The challenges result from, among other causes, increased grant funding, ambiguous grant objectives, and passive grant management and lack of oversight by FEMA and the states."

In other words, FEMA is giving so much money to states and locals that it can't keep track of where that money is going, or what exactly it's buying. Making matters worse, the IG found that DHS can't properly protect the troves of information its state, local, and federal surveillance assets collect about millions of Americans each year, either. According to the Inspector General, "DHS also did not ensure it had uniform procedures to implement privacy policies and controls to integrate privacy protections for each process."

That lack of uniform privacy procedures led to the IG's discovery of alarming practices at DHS. "For example," the IG's office writes, "we observed instances in which passwords, sensitive IT information (such as server names or IP addresses), unsecured or unlocked credit cards and laptops, and printed materials marked "For Official Use Only" or containing sensitive [personally identifiable information] could be accessed by individuals without a 'need to know.'"

Left out of the national conversation about police militarization have been entities like the Drug Enforcement Agency and DHS. But they are major culprits, and addressing their out of control budgets, privacy invasions, and secretive natures is necessary work if we mean to roll back the militarization of domestic policing that's come under national scrutiny since the courageous people of Ferguson starting protesting in August. As the November 2014 inspector general report shows, DHS is spending lots of our money, but we aren’t getting the security or health promised in return. Instead of a government prepared to deal with serious medical crises, the people are getting an armed to the teeth surveillance state, manifested by assault rifles pointed at people exercising their First Amendment rights from the tops of militarized, armored trucks, all purchased with our federal tax dollars. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.