On the streets of Portland unidentified men in full body armor and military style uniforms pulled people into unmarked cars in a manner that was all too similar to the behavior of authoritarian regimes.
This paramilitary operation in an American city was carried out by the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Rapid Deployment Force which named the action, “Operation Diligent Valor.” Following the outrage in Portland, the agency is now planning on sending 150 of its agents to Chicago. This is after deploying its forces to defend Confederate monuments.
The outrage in Portland is nothing new for the agency. The Department of Homeland Security is a particularly unjust, and rogue, element of a sprawling federal bureaucracy that delivers punishment far better than it delivers welfare. Standing out even amid other punitive institutions, DHS is a Frankensteined agency cobbled together with an insanely wide mission that no entity could possibly take on. On any given day its agents are tasked with:
- Manning the US border
- Rescuing Alaskan crab fisherman
- Providing aid to hurricane victims
- Fighting counterfeiters
- Arresting protesters
And they’re doing this job with a particular mix of independence and brutality. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is at fault for the horrific and concentration camp–like conditions at their immigration detention centers. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is at fault for thousands of its officers participating in a violent and racist Facebook group. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is at fault when airport security screeners fail to stop “inspectors from smuggling weapons or explosive materials through screening” 95 percent of the time. It was the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) complete failure after Hurricane Katrina that is still impacting New Orleans and its African-American community.
This was not the product of a well-thought-out plan to engage in a massive reorganization of federal agencies. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security is a historic accident. After 9/11, the answer in Washington to the errors of intelligence agencies was to create an even larger and less accountable bureaucracy.
From the start, even powerful players in the Bush White House, such as Dick Cheney, were opposed to its creation, simply believing it was more effective to coordinate domestic security operations through a White House office. But Tom Ridge, a skilled bureaucratic infighter who was the agency’s first secretary was not content with that solution and had a powerful ally in Joe Lieberman.
After the White House refused to let Tom Ridge testify before Congress, Lieberman’s legislative rationale for creating a separate federal agency gained steam. Republicans, fearful of being outflanked on security issues, switched positions, and the White House flip-flopped and backed the creation of DHS.
Early on the agency was panned for its failures. “Nearly three years after it was created in the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense, DHS does have a story, but so far it is one of haphazard design, bureaucratic warfare and unfulfilled promises. The department’s first significant test — its response to Hurricane Katrina in August — exposed a troubled organization where preparedness was more slogan than mission,” wrote the Washington Post.
The truth is that an agency this big, with a mission this sprawling, is destined to be too large to be effective and at the same time be rife with abuses of power and civil liberties violations.
Often functions of the Department of Homeland Security remain duplicative with other federal agencies. Vox’s Dara Lind noted in 2015 that DHS created its own version of the defense department’s 1033 program which distributes weapons of war to local police departments. So even when DHS troops aren’t deployed its weapons are being used against protesters.
She also notes that the agency’s “Fusion Hubs,” which were designed to share information and intelligence between local and federal agencies, are duplicative with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and Field Intelligence Groups.
Designed to streamline the domestic security bureaucracy, the federal government instead created a completely unworkable structure that has failed time after time.
Homeland Security’s size and sprawling mission are what creates the mechanisms by which these rights can be violated with impunity. And when there is a president like Donald Trump in the White House, who isn’t embarrassed about ignoring civil liberties and constitutional rights, it is DHS agents he will call upon to act on his behalf.
It’s time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. An agency created by two centrist lawmakers (Ridge and Lieberman), wanted by no one else, passed by a Congress cowed into believing that voting against anything with the word homeland, patriot, or terror in it would result in attack ads, and a failure from the start was a mistake of history.
Whether to abolish the Department of Homeland Security is not a question of safety versus liberty. The department makes us less safe and violates our liberties.
It’s time to make it a thing of the past.