In November 2003, the Transportation Security
Administration – one of the front-line fighters in the war on terror – shelled
out almost half a million dollars for one
glorious night of awards and entertainment. According to an internal investigation
carried out by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General,
the $461,745 poured into the event included "$1,850 for seven sheet cakes,
$1,500 for three cheese displays, and more than $81,000 for awards plaques,"
as well as $3.75 each for soft drinks and $64 per gallon of coffee. Then there
were the "per diems," transportation and hotel costs for award recipients.
Since the war on terror is so often a thankless and grueling job, the TSA extravaganza
was doubtless a much-needed morale booster for those on the front lines. Not
all agree, however. ""There's something terribly wrong with that agency,"
declared Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) last October. "Of all the agencies,
that's the one that's supposed to be working full-time against terrorist attacks."
It may be the biggest con ever carried out on American soil, and the irony
of it all is that it was so easy for the state to pull off. By manipulating
the 9/11 terrorist attacks to spread paranoia and fear across the country and
justify a perpetual war state, the Bush administration and its acolytes on the
state and local levels were able to justify the need for massive funding increases
for so-called homeland security needs. What was true after 9/11, and true
in May 2002, remains true today: "homeland security dominates the consciousness
of all levels of government."
While some of the $10 billion doled out so far has been spent wisely, for equipment,
services, and training that would be vital in the case of any future terrorist
attack, millions of dollars have been and continue to be misused. This indicates
the utter brazenness of those in power, as well as the fact that people have
become so indoctrinated that they no longer question whether they have been
getting the royal shaft from Emperor Bush and his courtiers.
From the Federal Right Down to the Local, the Story's the
But we can't lay all the blame on the Beltway.
When it comes to homeland security funding, the attitude of profligacy and greed
has proven infectious, pervading every level of government. Directly at the
opposite end of the scale from the TSA are places like Tiptonville, Tenn., which
60 Minutes visited for a
compelling exposé aired just over a week ago. Chronicling the feeding
frenzy with an eye focused directly on the trough, 60 Minutes reported
that this sleepy southern hamlet has, together with adjoining Lake County (7,900
souls in all), received $183,000 in homeland security funding since 9/11. Tiptonville,
says 60 Minutes, "probably isn't on any terrorist map of potential
targets. It's not even on the rental car map, and neither is the road you take
to get there."
Nevertheless, Mayor Macie Roberson believes that a terrorist organization such
as al-Qaeda might find his rural outpost a handy base for operations against
say, St. Louis or Memphis (2 hours away): "[N]o one would ever expect me
[al-Qaeda] here," the mayor confides. In that case, someone had better
get Ann Coulter
down there on the double – those "swarthy males" of al-Qaeda might
just blend in with the good residents of Tiptonville. Puh-leaze!
The prevailing wisdom of homeland security grant-getters
large and small was enunciated by Mayor Roberson: "[I]f it's available,
we're gonna apply for it." When his "13-page shopping list" was
approved by the DHS, 60 Minutes reports, "he went out and got a
Gator, which is an all-terrain vehicle. He also bought a couple of defibrillators,
one of which is being used at high school basketball games, and purchased protective
suits for the volunteer fire department, in the unlikely event terror comes
Meanwhile, over in Converse, Texas, a brand-new "homeland security trailer"
was used for bringing riding lawn mowers to the town's annual lawnmower races.
The Columbus, Ohio, fire department got bulletproof dog vests for its dog detachment,
just in case. Mason County, Wash., "famous mostly for its Christmas
trees," requisitioned $63,000 of DHS money "for a decontamination
unit that no one's been trained to use. It's been sitting in boxes in a warehouse
for a year." And citizens of Des Moines, Iowa, can breathe easier knowing
that they have received a key weapon in the war on terror – traffic cones.
Pork Barrel Polka
How are such expenditures being justified according
to homeland security needs? "Well, you know, that's one of the beauties
of homeland security," said Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the
House Homeland Security Committee, for 60 Minutes. "In the end,
everything has something to do with homeland security." And so, as it turned
out, everyone in Washington has had something to do with it as well. The biggest
bipartisan agreement of the age of terrorism has been the need for congressmen
of both parties to lobby as hard as possible for DHS funding for their states
and districts – whether they need them or not.
Considering the state he represents, Congressman Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.)
felt justified in criticizing this sure
recipe for pork. "[I]n a decision that was either boneheaded or politically
ingenious, they distributed the money in a formula that treated all states the
same," said Weiner in the aftermath of last August's Republican National
Convention. "So Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming received $38 per capita
while New York received only $5."
In 2003, the state
of Idaho – with a population
of just under 1.3 million and a questionable status as a terrorist target –
was awarded almost $1.7 million from DHS' Emergency Preparedness and Response
Directorate. And, despite his earnest complaints about fiscal mismanagement
at the TSA, Senator Dorgan's home state of North Dakota "ranks third in
the nation in the per capita money it receives to protect itself from terrorists."
to the IHT:
"[I]n the 2005 fiscal year, North Dakota will receive $12.85 million
in state homeland security funds, according to Federal Funds Information for
States, a Washington service that tracks grants for the states. That equals
$20.27 for each of North Dakota's 634,000 residents."
Among the goodies for Grand Forks are a "$200,000 bomb-dismantling robot,"
gas masks, decontamination tents, and a "$205,000 vehicle to carry the
bomb squad to cover any hostage situation, explosion, or what the police call
a 'weapons of mass destruction event.'"
Rep. Cox, whose bill to change the DHS funding scheme was shot down last year
by the Senate, seconded Weiner's opinion. "It's pork barrel. It's the kind
of distribution of funds that Washington always makes when politics comes before
substance." How severe is this problem, asked 60 Minutes? According
to Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog on government
overspending, "pork barrel spending on homeland security this year will
reach $1.7 billion."
Local Lobbying: Emphasizing Risk Assessment – or Not
Despite the failure of last year's bill, Rep.
Cox has pledged to submit a new one to make funding rationales follow a more
logical risk-based scheme. Recent congressional testimony from the new DHS secretary,
Michael Chertoff, indicates that policymakers may be starting to get the message.
According to critics, the post-9/11 use of risk quotients was flawed and manipulated
almost from the start. Former Ft. Wayne, Ind., mayor and past president of the
U.S. Conference of Mayors Paul
Helmke recently recounted that many cities and towns requesting funds hadn't
first conducted a "decent threat and vulnerability assessment that analyzes
what's vulnerable, what's critical, [and] what's been threatened in the past."
Further, heavy lobbying for inclusion on Congress's list of high-risk cities,
says Rep. Weiner, led to an unrealistically large number of cities claiming
to be terrorist targets – meaning that in the end, "the cities that needed
the most got less." Effective lobbying is how 31 cities were added in 2003
to the DHS
"Biowatch" program, a monitoring system that is supposed to track
the air for deadly chemical and biological agents at secret urban locations.
Despite criticisms that it might actually not be of much help in the case of
any such WMD attack, the government went ahead with it – at a cost of $1 million
annually per city.
After 9/11, the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and
the National Association of Counties got their collective act together and established
a "Homeland Security Task Force" to better lobby the federal government.
Said Dallas City Council member and Task
Force co-chair Mary Poss in 2002, "[W]e have to continue working with
the president and Congress to make sure that a larger share of the dollars that
are available for homeland security are, indeed, given directly to the communities
… we absolutely believe that the local fire chiefs, police chiefs, and other
personnel can make the best decisions about how money needs to be spent."
Indeed. That's how we ended up with critical decision-making like traffic cones,
bulletproof dog vests, and "homeland security"/riding lawnmower trailers.
To be fair, the lower-level lobbyists have a point when, like Poss, they argue
that direct funding to local government can save time and money by skipping
the bureaucracy of state-level middle management. However, the opposite situations
of officials on both ends of the totem pole ironically enough results in the
same waste and misuse of funds: while high officials can operate with impunity
and remain above the law, simply because of who they are and the great power
that they wield, local yokels are so far beneath the radar that no one would
ever think to question what goes on in a Tiptonville or Converse, without the
efforts of the media. Motivated by Lilliputian, self-serving instincts, low-level
fund-getters can profit handsomely from the war on terror precisely because
they are nowhere near the front lines of that alleged conflict.
However, new DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is replacing Tom Ridge, was
grilled on April 13 before a congressional committee, where
he announced that:
"[R]isk management as the template for how we do our work. And that
means that in our handling of grants, in our deployment of resources, in our
policymaking, we have to be driven by a disciplined, analytical approach that
looks to the issue of measuring consequence, measuring vulnerability, and measuring
Sketchy Investments, Paradoxical Priorities
Even if Chertoff really believes in this bold
pledge, which he may well do, the sheer size of the DHS bureaucracy makes any
sort of reform a formidable task. Some experts, like
Ivan Eland, don't believe the DHS has a prayer in this regard.
It may just be that the waste and corruption are now too ingrained, too systemic.
Examples of fiscal misuse from all across the nation abound. In Colorado, one
town spent an undisclosed amount of money to
buy gyms and hire personal trainers for its volunteer firefighters. And,
not to be outdone
by North Dakota, Pennsylvania's Allegheny and Northampton Counties got 10
bomb-handling robots. The Philadelphia Fire Department procured a $1.8 million
boat "to fight maritime fires and make river rescues," while the sheriff's
office in Warren
County (almost half of which lies within the Allegheny National Forest)
has its eyes on a $75,000 patrol boat.
Perhaps best of all is the case of Newark, N.J., which spent $174,804 on 10
garbage trucks. Despite being an illegal use of funds, city spokeswoman
Donna Purnell defended the purchase, stating, "[T]hey're not your typical
garbage trucks. … [T]hey have special apparatus on them for handling waste and
debris. These machines are to be used in the event of a major cleanup [after
Top officials have claimed that overspending mistakes have been made because
the DHS was set up in such haste. However, huge caches of money nationwide have
also been left unspent. Sometimes officials blame a slow bureaucracy. But other
times they just seem fresh out of ideas, as unfortunately seems to be the case
with Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who has spent less than 10 percent
of the $145 million set aside for the nation's capital. "Anybody could
just spend money," said Mayor Williams on 60 Minutes. "We want
to spend it wisely."
Fair enough. Washington is surely, along with Los Angeles and New York, one
of America's top three terrorism targets. This must be why the prudent, fiscally
cautious Williams has decide to purchase leather jackets for the metropolitan
police force, wide-screen TVs, " $100,000 to send sanitation workers to
a Dale Carnegie course that has nothing to do with emergency preparedness,"
as well as another hundred grand for a summer jobs program, which included creating
a rap song on emergency preparedness. 60 Minutes adds that "Mayor
Williams not only has $130 million left to spend, he's about to get $96 million
At the same time that cities and towns are reveling in new gadgets, outerwear,
and leisure activities, more basic elements of security preparedness have gone
neglected. Rep. Weiner points out that the police presence – which most people
would agree is vital for keeping track of what's going on at the street level
– has actually decreased, due to a sharp reduction in funding for the Clinton-era
COPS program. Deeming this program "the most successful and widely used
anti-crime program in American history," Weiner adds that its achievements
were even recognized by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. And on the issue
of port security, Weiner states that only 2 percent of the 7 million cargo containers
arriving annually at American ports are actually screened, and that President
Bush's 2005 budget "calls for $50 million for port security grants, down
from $200 million in his 2004 budget."
Nevertheless, as Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste noted, not
all ports are being shortchanged when it comes to DHS funding. The ports of
landlocked Oklahoma, for example, are safely under control: "[T]hey have
a river somewhere. And that is included under this maritime security provision
that was passed by Congress."
Rep. Cox was no doubt thinking of this case at the April
13 congressional hearing when he mentioned that "the DHS inspector
general recently found that $67 million in port security grants had been spent
on projects of, quote, 'marginal' homeland security benefit."
The Scourge of Secrecy
How have officials across the land been able to
get away with such gross mismanagement of funds that has led, in many cases,
to indefensibly unnecessary expenditures? And how have they justified their
freedom from all accountability? Easy – with a handy tool picked up from watching
the Bush administration in action: secrecy.
When the media has questioned officials about cases like those cited above,
officials have invoked their alleged right to not disclose any funding-related
information – lest it play into the hands of the enemy. The brazen contempt
for the public attested by such dubious logic, along with officials' sudden
and bloated sense of self-importance, has allowed them to purchase with impunity
in the name of fighting terror.
Noting that "the public is getting little information on how the money
is being allocated, even as the pipeline of federal money flowing into Pennsylvania
has grown to more than a quarter-billion dollars," the
Associated Press spoke of having filed a request under the state's Right-to-Know
law, in which it asked the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency for details
regarding all DHS purchases since 2003. However, this umbrella agency, which
must make final approval for all such expenditures, declined the request, citing
"security reasons." And when the AP tried to make systematic inquiries
into how other Pennsylvania agencies were spending their DHS cash, it was stonewalled
by a secrecy defense put up by local officials. In the end, "only one of
the state's nine regional counterterrorism task forces, the northwest task force,
would provide the AP with a fully itemized account of how it is using its share
of the grant money."
According to the AP, officials claimed that listing their DHS purchases was
"too dangerous," as doing so "could expose weaknesses to terrorists
or others bent on causing trouble."
Right. I'm sure that terrorist masterminds bent on destruction are right now
clutching their clipboards, eager to jot down how many rolls of caution tape
or how many Hazmat suits or how many patrol boats an individual city may have.
This kind of info is going to affect their strategic planning? Come on!
Nevertheless, the same scourge of secrecy has taken hold elsewhere. In Colorado,
home of the rather suspect "fitness trainers for firefighters" scheme,
state law "allows Colorado agencies to keep homeland security spending
secret." According to the
Denver Channel report, "Colorado lawmakers say releasing the full financial
records could compromise security if terrorists got hold of those documents."
Actually, if terrorists had to read (provided they could) the excruciatingly
detailed invoices that only a government inspector or accountant could love,
they would probably just fall asleep.
Concealing the Indulgences of an Ever Expanding State
Of course, there are many critics of this disingenuous
defense. Paul F. Campos, a constitutional law professor cited in the latter
article, states that "we're talking about a very significant amount of
money, and the mandate is so amorphous as to what constitutes 'homeland security'
that there is a real potential for a lack of oversight or corruption" –
thus echoing Rep. Chris Cox's quip that "everything has something to do
with Homeland Security." So why shouldn't everyone who can cash in?
The AP report quotes Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group
Project on Government Oversight (POGO): "[S]ecrecy
typically hides inefficiency, mismanagement, and sometimes corruption."
It's also a good cover for embarrassment – if an official's not brazen enough
to point out, of course, that "these aren't your typical garbage trucks."
All four of these shortcomings were manifested in the most famous post-9/11
case of the government's bad faith – that of Sibel
Edmonds, who was fired from her job as a foreign languages translator when
she spoke out about incompetence, fraud, corruption, and espionage inside the
FBI. While not in precisely the same category as the aforementioned cases, which
involved dubious purchases of tangible assets, Edmonds' case had basically the
same result: large sums of public money meant to make the homeland more secure
just evaporated, and to block inquiries into the matter, the weapon of secrecy
was wielded: in this case, the "State Secrets" privilege ordered by
then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
A few other brave people from the FBI and other agencies have similarly sought
to confront the leviathan of government incompetence since 9/11. Most of them
have shared the fate of the outspoken Mrs. Edmonds and been terminated. This
was the case with the onetime "superman" of homeland security oversight,
DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, who was mysteriously dismissed in
December 2004 after making numerous criticisms of the "huge, dysfunctional
bureaucracy" he had been tasked with investigating. According to Ervin,
major security flaws in maritime and airport security, as well as customs and
immigration work, still existed, even as the department was hemorrhaging money
left and right. He described DHS accounting methods as "chaotic and disorganized,"
and also blamed fiscal waste on "lavish spending on social occasions and
employee bonuses and a failure to require competitive bidding for some projects."
The ill-fated Ervin
was called "the citizens' last chance of ensuring that vitally important
money was being spent well" by POGO's Danielle Brian.
Sharing the Wealth
Red-blooded patriotism was not the only knee-jerk
reaction to manifest itself after 9/11, though it certainly was (along with
government-generated paranoia and fear-mongering) one of the most useful for
creating the conditions for the state's effortless and apparently infinite expansion.
The byproduct of this phenomenon, the Department of Homeland Security, was supposed
to streamline bureaucracy and expedite cooperation between agencies involved
with the war on terror. Instead, it merely created another level of government,
another layer of insulation from the public gaze for avaricious officials. With
their profligate use of the secrecy and security alibis, these officials have
been able to open the door of a veritable candy store of public funds. Accountability,
what little of it had existed before, went out the window with the creation
of the homeland security state, along with what little remained of the short-lived
to the White House, the 2005 budget envisions a 9.7 percent increase in
homeland security funding, "nearly tripl[e] the FY 2001 levels." Given
this continuing pattern of largess, who needs to compete anymore for scarce
funds? The bonhomie of this ever expanding state was well attested by the same
bunch who invested $3,350 for seven sheet cakes and three cheese displays. In
a bout of "share the wealth" joviality, TSA executives awarded cash
bonuses one-third higher on average than those of any other federal agency ($16,477)
– to a whopping 88 of its 116 senior managers. CNN notes that "on average,
federal departments give bonuses to 49 percent of eligible managers."
To receive such a reward, a TSA official must "demonstrate extraordinary
vision and leadership." From this and all the other examples mentioned
above, it looks like the country is not hurting for extraordinary vision and
leadership these days, though it may be well beyond bankrupt – and not necessarily
safer than it was before 9/11.