‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,’ says Denis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ classic take on Patricia Highsmith The American Friend – an observation that really ought to be attached as an epigraph to the report by US Senator Tom Coburn’s jaw-dropping report into waste and inappropriate use of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant money in the United States.
The report’s main focus is the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a funding program designed to improve security or ‘preparedness’ in ‘ selected high-risk urban areas’ in order ‘to build a sustainable and measurable increase in the capability of these critical urban areas so we can defend them,’ according to former DHS director Tom Ridge.
In theory, UASI grants are based on the criteria established by the 9/11 Commission in 2004 that ‘homeland security assistance should be based strictly on an assessment of risks and vulnerabilities’. But as Senator Coburn makes clear, risk and vulnerability, like beauty, tend to be in the eye of the beholder, and some law enforcement agencies and municipal authorities clearly have clearly given their imaginations considerable free rein.
Take a few examples of UASI grants cited in the report:
- Oxnard/Thousand Oaks urban area in Ventura County, which became designated new urban area in 2009, received a $2.5 m UASI grant, of which $25,000 has been spent on a new fence for the Oxnard Police Department and $75,000 on alarms and closed-circuit television in a Civic Arts Plaza – this in an area where crime rates dropped to an all-time low in 2009.
- In the city of Tulsa, $150,000 of UASI grant money has been spent on security cameras and security barriers at the Tulsa County jail
- In Arizona officials spent over $90,000 on installingl bollards and a video surveillance system to monitor the main stadium, clubhouses, and training fields at the Peoria Sports Complex,
- In New Orleans, $3,160 of UASI funds were spent on a roofing project for the New Orleans East Tower Building
- Of the $11 billion spent by the state of Texas on homeland security last year, $21 were spent on a fish tank, $24,000 on a latrine on wheels in Fort Worth, and an unknown sum on a ‘hog catcher in Liberty County.’
- In Columbus, Ohio, the City Council spent $98,000 of UASI money on a ‘remotely operated underwater vehicle,’ even though the Columbus dive team only deals with search and recovery missions, not terrorist attacks..
- Fargo, North Dakota, a town with fewer than 2 homicides a year since 2005, has received $8 million in homeland security grants, nearly $257,000 of which was spent on an armoured truck with rotating gun turret.
- In the town of Keane, New Hampshire (2 murders in fifteen years), the police department is looking to spend a similar sum on a BearCat tactical vehicle to protect the town’s annual Pumpkin Festival. In response to criticisms from local residents that tanks were not required in Keane, the local police chief declared ‘Do I think al-Qaeda is going to target Pumpkin Fest? No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement.’
Indeed there are. And a number of police departments across the US are spending UASI and other DHS funds on armoured vehicles, drones and other devices developed by the US military for use in its foreign wars, as part of an ongoing trend towards militarised law enforcement, in which domestic policing, homeland security and the ‘war on terror’ increasingly overlap.
Some police forces have used $90,000 in UASI and other DHS funds to purchase’Long-Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) developed by the US military for use against ‘insurgents.’ In Pittsburgh, an LRAD was directed against a crowd of protesters at the 2009 G-20 Summit, one of whom subsequently reported ‘permanent hearing loss, nausea, pain and disorientation’ and sued the city of Pittsburgh.
These developments are clearly not related to any putative ‘risks and vulnerabilities’ relating to terrorism. As the report notes
‘Militarized vehicles are becoming more commonplace in cities and towns across the country in large part because federal funds can be used to acquire one, including from the UASI program. Police departments rave about the vehicles’ “shock and awe” effect saying the vehicles’ menacing presence can be enough of a deterrent for would-be criminals.’
And not only criminals. Earlier this year, a number of law enforcement officers from across the country used UASI funds to defray expenses for attending the 5-day HALO Corporation Counter-Terrorism Summit 2012, at the luxury Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an island outside San Diego.
A California based organization ‘ founded by former Special Operations, National Security, and Intelligence personnel’, HALO provides ‘ safety and security for those in need and to improve force protection, all aspects of security, humanitarian aid, and disaster response.’
Attendees who paid the $1,000 license fee were able to network with other officials and ‘vendors’ in the same field. They also watched a ‘real’ tactical response team in which soldiers and an armoured vehicle repel a staged attack by flesh-eating zombies, which I include here for your delectation:
In case you are wondering what a man in a keffiyah and a vaguely-Mayan looking woman are doing mingling with the walking dead in a sort-of-Middle Eastern environment, one of the event’s organizers 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.’
Got it now? So Americans should be thankful that someone is looking into these things on their behalf, and preparing for every eventuality, and some are clearly more thankful than others. As one high-ranking official at the California Emergency Management Agency quoted in the report put it ‘We’re always looking for creative ways to calculate risk to get the risk score as high as we can to get the funding.’
You can see his point. But as Senator Coburn points out, pushing the ‘risk score’ up to get funding doesn’t have much to do with security of any kind since
‘This nation will never be able to eliminate entirely the threat of terrorist attacks. No matter how diligent our intelligence agencies are in collecting threat information, it is nonetheless imperfect. Dealing with the risk of attack requires understanding our limitations and focusing on the best things we do to prevent one—a concept referred to often as “buying down risk”.’
Wise words, but who is listening? In the Senator’s estimation, this more rational and realistic approach to security is undermined by the Department of Homeland Security and Congress, both of whom
‘have often let politics interfere, diluting any results. Instead of sending funds where they can have the biggest impact, money is spread around to parochial political interests. This ensures fewer complaints and broad political support, but does not necessarily mean we are safer.’
Maybe not. But as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, and even if they aren’t, the more some people crank up these worst case scenarios, they more likely they are to profit from them.
And anyway, just because zombies haven’t attacked America yet, who’s to say that they might not do it in the future? I mean who can really guarantee that won’t happen?
And if you can’t, then surely it’s better to be prepared, just in case?