After the 9/11 attacks, Congress and the Bush administration pretended that unlimited federal spending was one of the best ways to thwart terrorist threats. In 2002, Congress created the Homeland Security Department (DHS), sweeping some of the most inept federal agencies, such as the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), into the new mega-department. Congress also created numerous programs — some run directly by FEMA — to shovel out more than $30 billion in anti-terrorism funding to local and state governments.
As Sen. Tom Coburn (R–Okla.) observed a few years ago, "FEMA's lax guidelines and oversight made the agency a virtual rubberstamp for most anything that grant recipients creatively justified as related to homeland security — regardless of how loosely related." Louisiana Homeland Security grant recipients spent $2,400 for a lapel microphone and $2,700 for a teleprompter. Fort Worth, Texas, spent $24,000 of a federal anti-terrorism grant on a latrine-on-wheels. Other Texas local governments spent Homeland Security grants on "a hog catcher for Liberty County, body bags, garbage bags, Ziploc bags and two 2011 Camaros at $31,000 apiece," as a Senate report revealed.
DHS approved a Michigan police department's spending $6,200 of its grant on 13 sno-cone machines. The Senate report noted that local officials "defended the sno-cone purchases saying the machines were needed to treat heat-related emergencies." DHS also asserted that the machines were "dual purpose" because they "could be used to fill ice packs in an emergency."
The Jacksonville Urban Area Security Initiative used a DHS grant to produce an 8-minute film entitled "Domestic Terrorism: The First Line of Defense." The film urged viewers to report any suspicious activity and to be especially wary of people are "alone or nervous" or people "of average or above average intelligence" (unlike the people who made the film). People were also told to be on the lookout for residents who displayed "increased frequency of prayer or religious behavior." As a Techdirt analysis pointed out, "Broadly defined 'suspicious behavior' is a great way to make every citizen a suspect … and justify every violation of personal privacy. If you need warrantless wiretaps or a reason to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens, all you have to do is start listing everyday activity as 'suspicious.'"
Anti-terrorism funding has proven to be a boon for the travel industry. Many DHS grant recipients paid to send their employees to the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit in 2012, which took place at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an island near San Diego. Invitees were told that "this luxury resort features over 460 guestrooms, five pools, three fantastic restaurants overlooking the bay, a world-class spa and state-of-the-art fitness center. Paradise awaits." The highlight of the conference was a "zombie apocalypse" show featuring "40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit…. Conference attendees were invited to watch the shows as part of their education in emergency response training," as a Senate investigation reported. This type of federally subsidized mass-shooting rehearsal did not spur any protests from anti-gun groups.
DHS handouts make state and local law-enforcement agencies more intrusive and punitive. DHS has given a number of grants to purchase license-plate readers for police patrol cars. One California urban area spent $6 million on the readers, which were used to detect vehicles with "excessive traffic violations." Two years ago, DHS solicited proposals for private companies to create a national database on license-plate data that could disclose exactly when and where citizens drive. The subsequent firestorm caused DHS to temporarily back off from its proposal but it was rolled out again in 2015.
Maryland used federal Homeland Security grants to equip hundreds of police cars with license-plate scanners that create almost 100 million records per year detailing exactly where and when each vehicle travels. The grants also paid for stationary cameras that recorded license plates passing on nearby roads. The massive databank, which mortifies the ACLU, has been almost a total failure at nailing violent criminals or car thieves or terrorists. Instead, almost all the license-plate alerts involve scofflaws who failed to take their cars in for mandatory vehicle-emissions tests.