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Officials in central Indianapolis thought deeply a few years back about what equipment they needed to defend against a local attack involving weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical arms or a nuclear bomb, and their answer was (ba dum, ba dum) a hovercraft!

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Luckily, the city didn’t even have to foot the$69,000 bill. The funds instead came from a Federal Emergency Management Agency program known as the Urban Area Security Initiative, which has so far spent more than $7 billion trying to make about five dozen of America’s cities safe from the threat of terrorism.

When officials in Louisiana calculated how they could best deal with the terrorism threat in their own backyard, their answer in part was – yes, really – a teleprompter and a lapel microphone, again purchased with funds from the FEMA initiative. Similarly, Oxnard-Thousand Oaks officials in California deliberated and decided to buy new fins and snorkels for their dive team.

But the City of Clovis in that state was even more creative: They used a $250,000 FEMA grant to buy an armored vehicle known as the BearCat, which wound up being used to patrol at an Easter egg hunt and other public events.

Some of the urban security funds were undoubtedly carefully spent. But a report last week by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) highlighted the highly unusual spending choices listed above and accused FEMA of extraordinarily weak oversight. FEMA and the department in which it sits, Homeland Security, have failed either to carefully assess which cities need help or to examine which of its grants have been properly used, Coburn said.

“If in the days after 9/11 [when the initiative was approved] lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years, I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program,” Coburn said in a cover note on the report, addressed “Dear Taxpayer.”

“We would have been frustrated to learn that limited federal resources were now subsidizing the purchase of low-priority items,” added Coburn, a physician who is the senior Republican member of the Homeland Security permanent subcommittee on investigations.

His report lists some of those: an underwater robot acquired by the police diving team in Columbus, Ohio; 13 sno-cone machines purchased by police officials in Michigan; and a video prepared for the Jacksonville police that warns members of the public to be suspicious of those with “average or above average intelligence” who display “conspicuous adaptation to western culture and values.”

The grant program was also used to reimburse expenses incurred by government participants at a security industry trade show in San Diego this year, where a mock attack was staged by SWAT team officers against “zombies” wearing fake blood. A $90,000 noise-generating machine was purchased by the Pittsburgh police to disperse crowds, an unlikely counter-terror mission, and a similar machine was deployed – but not used – by San Diego police outside a town hall meeting held by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Cal.), Duncan Hunter (R-Cal.), and Susan Davis (D-Cal.).

FEMA’s public affairs officers did not respond to a request for comment about Coburn’s criticisms. His report states that the agency failed to set any concrete counter-terror goals for urban centers until Oct. 2011, eight years after the program got under way, making it impossible to assess whether any of the grants were worthwhile.

The officials in Michigan defended the sno-cone machine purchase, stating that they were needed to deal with heat-related emergencies or fill ice packs, according to Coburn’s report.

A report last year by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit group based in California, said that federal counter-terror grants have often been spent on armored equipment and heavy weapons that give local police forces military-like capabilities, contributing to wider use of heavy force against domestic protesters.

Coburn, a longtime federal spending critic, last month issued another report highlighting waste, this time in the Defense Department. The permanent subcommittee on investigations, on which he sits, also published a report in October accusing Homeland Security officials of squandering substantial sums on intelligence “fusion” centers that produced “shoddy, rarely timely” reports on terror threats.

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...