America is prepared if pumpkin-starved zombies that can only be killed with flavored snowballs invade, thanks to billions of dollars in federal grants to harden the homeland against terror attacks.
What’s not clear is whether the United States is any better protected against more conventional attacks by actual humans using guns, bombs or chemical weapons, according to report on wasteful spending of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) money issued today by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
DHS has spent $35 billion since 2003 on grants to help state and local governments prevent and respond to terrorist attacks. Money flowed through up to 17 different programs with few standards as to what would qualify.
One costly program with particularly ill-defined rules is the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), which has funneled more than $7 billion to state and local agencies with virtually no accountability, according to the report.
Local governments have used UASI money to buy Sno-Cone machines in Michigan, armored vehicles in small towns across the country, and even to pay $1,000-per-person registration fees at a training seminar that featured a session in which 40 actors portraying zombies were gunned down in a parking lot.
“After a decade in operation and many billions spent, it is unclear to what extent UASI and other DHS grant programs have made our nation’s cities safer and more prepared,” Coburn’s report said.
“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 safe,” the report said.
Money has been wasted in big cities and small, according to Coburn. Chicago and other Cook County, Illinois, governments spent $45.6 million in DHS grants to install surveillance cameras throughout the city and in police cars between 2003 and 2009. The project never worked and was eventually abandoned.
Fargo, N.D., is one of many cities that used federal homeland security money to buy an armored vehicle, complete with a rotating gun turret, at a cost of $256,000.
So far, the costly vehicle has only been used for training and appearances at the annual Fargo picnic, where it was displayed near a children’s bounce house, according to the report.
The tiny town of Keane, N.H., justified its plan to buy a similar vehicle using DHS grant money by saying in its grant application that it could be used to protect the annual Pumpkin Festival.
The use of federal grants to purchase armored vehicles has become so commonplace that some manufacturers advertise in-house representatives who can help police departments prepare their applications to DHS.
DHS officials disagreed with Coburn’s findings. Money from agency grants has been used by state and local governments to improve resources used to respond to natural disasters, and coordinate information-sharing on terror threats, spokesman Matt Chandler said in a written statement.
Changes proposed in the 2013 budget will require a “more targeted approach to grant funding,” as well as enhanced accountability requirements to ensure money is properly spent, Chandler said.
The counter-terror grants were created after the bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 to help local first responders prevent and respond to terror attacks.
Funding increased dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and creation of DHS in 2003.
UASI grants were supposed to be a sudden infusion of funds to communities at high risk of being terror targets. But the program quickly became another congressional pork-barrel program, with communities that had little chance of being targeted pressuring their congressional representatives for a share of the money, the Coburn report said.
“Political factors created upward pressure on the program as more and more cities wanted to receive funding,” the report said.
Local governments are not required to put up any money of their own. They also are not required to demonstrate how the money would make them safer from terrorism.
So explanations like using 13 Sno-Cone machines to generate ice packs in a medical disaster was enough for Montcalm County, Mich., officials to justify the cost, pegged at $6,200 in the Coburn report but $11,700 in local news accounts.
The zombie skit provided training on how to deal with “extreme medical situations where people become crazed and violent, creating widespread fear and disorder,” according to the justification cited in the report.
Getting a DHS grant is like “winning the lottery” one local official told Coburn’s researchers.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner’s special reporting team.