WASHINGTON — Federal money intended to help cities prepare for terrorist attacks has been used by small towns to buy armored vehicles and for an exercise called “zombie apocalypse training,” according to a report by Sen. Tom Coburn that criticizes spending on “low-risk” areas.
“At a time when our $16 trillion national debt is our greatest national security threat, we must make sure that all programs, especially those meant to prevent terrorism, are achieving their mission,” Coburn said Wednesday.
“Congress has a duty to ensure that this grant program does not become a parochial, pork-barrel entitlement program. We need to help the program fulfill its original goal of providing funds for projects in areas most at risk.”
The Department of Homeland Security, created by Congress after the 9/11 attacks, administers a grant program called the Urban Area Security Initiative. The program has allotted more than $7 billion in the past decade, according to the report.
“Keene, New Hampshire, with a population just over 23,000 and a police force of 40, set aside UASI funds to buy a BearCat armored vehicle,” the report states.
“Despite reporting only a single homicide in the prior two years, the City of Keene told DHS the vehicle was needed to patrol events like its annual pumpkin festival. Tulsa, Oklahoma, used UASI funding to harden a county jail and purchase a color printer.”
Originally, the program focused on seven major cities, using a formula to assess risk, but then expanded to as many as 64 because of political pressure, before being scaled back to 31 in the last fiscal year, the report says.
In all, 32 states have received money from the program, with the largest amounts going to New York, California and Texas. Oklahoma has received $32 million.
Texas newspapers have reported that purchases in that state include a $21 fish tank in Seguin, a $24,000 latrine, a “hog catcher” and two 2011 Camaros.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the report.
Urban areas can use the grant money for equipment, training and personnel costs under the broad definition of allowable expenses, according to the report, which charges that no framework exists for determining whether the money spent made the areas safer.
Among the expenditures questioned by the report:
• Fees for first responders to attend a training seminar on an island near San Diego, where a company staged a show featuring a military unit killing zombies.
Coburn said, “Paying for first responders to attend a HALO Counterterrorism Summit at a California island spa resort, featuring a simulated zombie apocalypse, does little to discourage potential terrorists.”
• Columbus, Ohio, recently used $98,000 in grant funds to buy an underwater robot, declaring the purchase an “emergency” because of federal grant deadlines.
• The Seattle Police Department used $41,000 to purchase a remote-control helicopter that must not be flown above crowds and can mainly be used for traffic accidents.
The report comes just a few weeks after a Senate subcommittee investigation, initiated by Coburn, questioned the utility — and the expenses — of state “fusion centers” created across the nation to gather and share intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. The Homeland Security Department said the report's findings were dated and misleading.
“This report shows that, too often, so-called security spending is making our nation less secure by directing scarce dollars to low-priority projects and low-risk areas,” Coburn said.