BY Phillip Swarts

While President Obama recently proclaimed that al-Qaida’s ability to attack on U.S. soil has been greatly diminished, his Homeland Security Department has gone on a shopping binge that has added more than $32.5 billion in annual spending since George W. Bush left office.

The Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, reports that spending in the 16 largest Homeland Security programs grew a whopping 166 percent between 2008 and 2011. And 2012 was budgeted to grow even more, though final figures won’t be available until after fiscal year ends later this month, the auditors said.

In a report this week, GAO blamed poor coordination for the rapid growth of spending and warned the situation left Homeland in a potentially difficult position with upcoming automatic budget cuts due to take effect from last year’s debt deal between Congress and the White House.

“Given the fiscal challenges facing the federal government, funding shortfalls may become an increasingly common challenge at DHS, leading to further cost growth that widens the gap between resource requirements and available funding,” the GAO said.

For creating an environment that has allowed spending to explode while threats have diminished, the Homeland Security Department wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to an extreme example of government waste, fraud, abuse or unnecessary spending. 

The agency responded to the GAO’s rebuke by saying it is already fixing the problems and expects the situation to get better soon .”The Department’s program performance data are more accurate, complete, and transparent, and leadership has greater awareness of potential program risks,” said Jim Crumpacker, the department’s laison to the GAO.

But GAO isn’t convinced, questioniong whether the agency really has the tools to oversee costs. 

“Most major programs lack reliable cost estimates, realistic schedules, and agreed-upon baseline objectives, limiting DHS leadership’s ability to effectively manage those programs and provide information to Congress,” the report said.

The 16 programs studied by GAO had the largest growth under Obama and accounted for the majority of Homeland’s annual budget. Total spending for those programs rose from $19.7 billion in 2008, Bush’s last year in office, to $52.2 billion in 2011, the GAO said. The department’s entire budget for 2012 is about $60 billion.

Even Homeland’s own managers have doubts about the state of spending, GAO found. “Sixty-one survey respondents reported that their programs have experienced funding instability, and we found that 44 of the 61 programs had also realized cost growth, schedule slips, or capability reductions,” the auditors said.

Homeland has faced other recent criticisms, including an earlier report that government agencies still can’t agree on a way to tell when a building has been decontaminated from anthrax more than a decade after the biological weapon was used in attack on Congress and some media outlets.

The rapid rise in spending also contrasts with the Obama’s administration claims that the homeland threat from al-Qaida has diminished.

“We took the fight to al Qaeda, decimated their leadership, and put them on a path to defeat.  And thanks to the courage and skill of our intelligence personnel and armed forces, Osama bin Laden will never threaten America again,” the president said earlier this month on the 11th anniverary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. “Instead of pulling back from the world, we’ve strengthened our alliances while improving our security here at home.”

The president’s counterterrorism adviser gave a similar assessment in a speech in April.  “When we assess that al-Qaida of 2012, I think it is fair to say that, as a result of our efforts, the United States is more secure and the American people are safer,” John Brennan said.

The GAO recommended the department implement more oversight to better evaluate whether certain purchases are needed to meet security goals.  DHS agreed with the recommendations, and is already starting to reevaluate some of its costs and spending levels, investigators said.