On Monday morning, the House Armed Services Committee released an update to its hearing schedule for the week, adding a panel before its Readiness Subcommittee on “Continued Oversight of the Transfer of Excess Military Equipment to Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies.” The reason for the hearing may shock you. It’s certainly an issue that would have drawn much more attention in any other environment than Washington’s current circus atmosphere.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a damning report on the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office, the organization that provides local police departments with “excess” military equipment. In what can only be described as a frightening development, the GAO was able to obtain $1.2 million worth of this equipment, including “night vision goggles, reflex (also known as reflector) sights, infrared illuminators, simulated pipe bombs, and simulated rifles” from LESO — without anyone from the office verifying that they were, in fact, a legitimate law enforcement organization.
Left unanswered is just how many other groups, with significantly more bad intent, might have been able to do the same thing.
THE “MILITARIZATION” OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
The Department of Defense has been providing this “excess” equipment to police departments since 1991. In that time, the “1033 program,” named after the law that enabled it, has provided more than $6 billion of equipment and ammunition to local and state law enforcement agencies. Critics say this has been a major contributing factor to the increasing militarization of the nation’s police departments.
A 2015 article in The Economist reported that the annual use of police SWAT teams had increased from roughly 3,000 in 1980 to more than 50,000, despite a drop in violent crime over that period. The number of SWAT teams has grown, beyond large cities. The article cites the fact that “though nearly 90% of American cities with populations above 50,000 have SWAT teams, so do more than 90% of police departments serving cities with 25,000 to 50,000 people—more than four times the level from the mid-1980s.”
The availability of military equipment has certainly contributed to this trend. The debate over whether making our local police departments look and act more like the military is a topic for another time. But whatever your view on the issue, it’s hard to argue that the Defense Department ought to be ensuring that it only sends equipment to actual police departments.
CHECKING BOXES WITHOUT CHECKING FACTS
In the FY 2016 NDAA, Congress told GAO to examine the 1033 program. Did they ever. When the hearing convenes at 10:30 this morning, the report’s authors—Zina Merritt, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO, and Wayne McElrath, director of GAO’s Forensic Audits and Investigative Service—will tell the committee about GAO’s “independent testing,” bureaucratese for a sting.
Last year, GAO set up a fictitious law enforcement agency and applied for a grant through the LESO. They describe a bureaucracy that was checking boxes without checking facts. For instance, when LESO asked the investigators to provide the statutory authority for their organization, GOA simply made it up. Apparently, no one actually looked up the statute to verify the information.
Furthermore, all correspondence was though email. “At no point during the application process,” the GAO report states, “did LESO officials verbally contact officials at the agency we created… to verify the legitimacy of our application or to discuss establishing a MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with our agency.”
Even worse, when investigators arrived at the warehouses to pick up their equipment, they gained entry with forged credentials. At two of the three sites, no one asked for identification before handing over the items.
This is, frankly, nothing short of frightening. DLA says it addressed the issues immediately after learning about the deficiencies in March of this year (GAO shares drafts of its reports with affected agencies before it publishes them, to allow them to respond). Despite DLA’s actions to close the barn door after the horse was already out, GAO concluded that the agency “lacks a comprehensive framework for instituting fraud prevention and mitigation measures.”
The president has been making noise about firing his attorney general. But today, I’ll be listening to hear how many people in LESO were shown the door in response to this inexcusable security breach.