Time to Abolish the DHS?

by | Aug 1, 2013

photo: Steve Rhodes

To the glee of her critics, Janet Napolitano, the longest-serving secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in its decade-long existence, has announced her resignation. No longer will Republicans have old Janet to kick around. As for the civil libertarians and frustrated national security state watchers, she was a reliable foot solider and bureaucrat and her departure is welcome for as much as it will make a difference, which is likely not much.

That’s because speculation of her replacement has centered around such milquetoast figures as retired Coast Guard Chief Thad Allen and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, both of whom would no doubt would toe the line as faithfully as Napolitano and her ineffectual predecessors, Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge. 

Then there is the incredibly jarring prospect of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly becoming the new head of DHS. While the force’s infamous stop-and-frisk and Muslim community surveillance programs are currently tied up in contentious civil rights litigation, he has also overseen an expansion of the NYPD which is now acting like an auxiliary of both the CIA and the military here and abroad. If there were a poster child for post-9/11 overreach, it would be the NYPD, and its flinty-eyed top cop the perfect embodiment of imperious state authority. 

Maybe that’s exactly what law enforcement groupies like National Review’s Rich “thank you for stopping and frisking” Lowry want, but it would not be good for the country. Sure, Ray Kelly would be a real boon to the federal bureaucracy, particularly in terms of justifying the continued need for this resource-gorging agency, and for the parasitical contracting industry and members of congress who benefit from it most. His nomination would tickle law-and-order Republicans to no end. But as for the rest of us, the likelihood that he would roll back any intrusive and constitutionally questionable DHS policies and programs – like the boondoggle intelligence-sharing fusion centers, full body scanners at the airport, or the proclivity of DHS to spy on protesters and activists – are slim to none. 

And if we expect him to not be one of those feds who feast on personal data, or push blindly ahead for more ubiquitous security-driven surveillance to train on the American people, we’d be fools. Writer David Sirota doesn’t hold back: “Lost in the noise is the fact that in the midst of disclosures about the Obama administration’s sprawling – and potentially illegal – national security state, a Kelly nomination would put a national surveillance apparatus fit for a sci-fi satire in the hands of a comic-book-worthy thug.”

Maybe it’s time to ask if we really have to.

Covering DHS as a reporter since its awkward birth in 2003, it’s safe to say the baby never learned to walk, or stopped flinging its food or sucking its thumb. But it has grown. An umbrella agency that now incorporates 22 different agencies and components with some 240,000 employees, it has survived mostly because of natural bureaucratic intransigence, but fed also, by the lingering specter of 9/11, which gives it near-impenetrable political security. It is currently receiving appropriations of $39 billion for fiscal year 2013 (and that is after sequestration). 

Of course most of that money goes to DHS components that were independent or part of other agencies before DHS came along. They include the U.S Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and everyone’s friend, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

But some $4.5 billion of the total budget goes to front office operations and programs, as well as new DHS directorates created after 2003. They involve department management, research and development, security training, the inspector general’s office, the Office of Health Affairs, Analysis & Operations, and a Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. And don’t forget its cybersecurity directorate – every agency’s got one! – for which its getting more than a half a billion dollars a year to operate. In other words, the DHS administration has become a bureaucratic planet onto itself and no one can deny it. 

Case in point: I toured the old St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, the site of the (still unfinished) new 4.5 million square foot DHS headquarters, in 2011. I was told by my handlers that the old imposing 19th century main hall, which used to house hundreds of patients and the administration of the hospital – the size of two football fields – would be, once refurbished, for the secretary’s staff only. Another major hall would be for the agency’s lawyers. The rest of the 14,000 employees from other components would be working elsewhere on the 176-acre property.

Ben Friedman over at CATO called DHS a “bureaucratic monstrosity” and there are plenty of people outside and inside government who would agree with him. Isn’t it time to consider that this experiment – inspired by the politically driven, essentially emotional, misplaced need to do something after the 9/11 attacks and fueled accordingly by neoconservative grandstanders like Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) and Rep. Peter King (R), who have used the new agency and its corresponding congressional committees as a platform for anti-Muslim tirades and more government intrusion our lives – has failed?

Put aside all of the money the government would save, getting rid of the Department of Homeland Security would be a first step at scaling back post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism and law enforcement hubris – not to mention the militarization of domestic security. They’ve already began testing domestic drone surveillance (in addition to the military blimps and aerostats, drones are already used on the border and in the Drug War), and the agency is always on the lookout for the best in spy camera technology, because, of course, they are looking out for our best interest. DHS has also helped local police build up their own armories by giving them money to buy military surplus. “The buying spree has transformed local police departments into small, army-like forces, and put intimidating equipment into the hands of civilian officers,” wrote Andrew Becker for The Daily Beast in 2011. 

The problem with the DHS administration is that it doesn’t have a clear mission beyond coordinating homeland security efforts already exercised by its major components and working with outside agencies – FBI, the Pentagon, the Centers for Disease Control and state and local homeland security offices, etc. – to share information, launch joint programs, training, policy, whatever. 

One of the agencies it helped to get off its feet was the new TSA, and from day one, DHS has fumbled and bumbled down the runway, from the enormous amount of money lost in failed contracts, to the conveyor belt of bad press regarding the screening procedures (like old ladies and toddlers getting humiliating pat-downs while explosives and guns sail through checkpoints time and again during undercover inspections). 

For the last several years, millions of fliers have endured full-body scanners that snap near-naked pictures of their bodies while they “stick ’em up” obediently in something that resembles a mini-transporter but is infinitely not as cool. DHS has insisted these machines are safe and necessary (ironically, the Rapiscan models that ex-DHS chief Chertoff lobbied for when he left the agency to go into the private sector are being pulled from the airports – more millions wasted – because they emit the more dangerous ionizing radiation). But officials still can’t guarantee that full-body scans will detect all explosives hidden on the human body, leading many of us to wonder uneasily about what fresh tortures TSA may have in store for us down the road.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is demanding more information about DHS agents detaining thousands of individuals at the borders each year, confiscating their laptops and other electronic devices, even when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing. From the ACLU in May:

Essentially DHS has adopted a policy of peering into anyone’s data, at any time, for any reason. Through a FOIA request filed three years ago we discovered that more than 6,500 travelers had their devices searched under this policy between October 2008 and June 2010. Almost half of those were U.S. citizens.

Flying, to many Americans, has become a very stressful undertaking – and forget it if you’re suddenly put on the “no fly list” by mistake – the DHS redress program, which is supposed to help get you scrubbed from the list (supposedly 21,000 names strong as of 2011, double from the year before) has done nothing of the sort for anyone, according to critics.

Meanwhile, DHS has invested upwards of $1.4 billion on state/regional fusion centers but cannot account for how it was spent, according to a scathing senate report last fall. That report accuses DHS of not only of wasting money, but it called the information the fusion center was generating “oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” At the time, The Washington Post paraphrased the report, calling the centers “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.”

A bevy of law enforcement representatives, as well as then-Sen. Lieberman, who you could easily call the father of the fusion centers, leapt to DHS’s defense. But it is hard to say you are not spying on Americans when you have state fusion center officials like this guy in Arkansas, clearly admitting they are monitoring “anti-American” organizations without warrants. The ACLU has been tracking these centers, too, calling them a “force multiplier for spying in local communities.”

During the Occupy Wall Street rallies, individuals from DHS’ Federal Protective Services were spotted on the scene at numerous city events, because of course, a domestic protest movement regarding the dirty nexus between Wall Street and the state are a threat to the homeland. FPS agents showed up again to greet Tea Party protesters across the country in May. Later, hundreds of documents obtained through numerous FOIA requests showed widespread DHS surveillance of the Occupy movement, and even internal recognition that what they were doing may not be constitutional. 

Add all of this to the scandals that have plagued both the DHS administration, as well its components (the Secret Service prostitution affair being the worst in recent years, but some of the smaller ones hurt the agency just as much over time). But don’t expect congress to get to the bottom of any of it. The way the agency is structured, some 100 committees have oversight jurisdiction over DHS, proving the old adage that having too many cooks in the kitchen makes for a crummy stew that no one will have to take the blame for.

DHS also remains the agency with lowest morale among its employees, year after year, since the agency’s inception. The lack of training, budgets, leadership have all been fingered, but we really need to throw in the fact employees answer to two masters – their component heads and DHS – and there is so much turnover at the top, so much ambiguity about what this umbrella organization is supposed to be doing, that it creates a culture of detachment and confusion, thus the low morale. 

In other words, the bureaucracy is really a threat to its own mission – dare we say a threat to national security? It’s certainly become a threat to us, costing Americans more in coin and liberty every day. This is no more evident than in DHS’s recent attempts to gain more access to Internet data in its new cybersecurity efforts. We already have our hands full with NSA. The time to address the future of DHS is now.

Reprinted by permission from Antiwar.com.