“As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore,” Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) famously cautioned her congressional colleagues as she prepared to cast the lone dissenting vote of 519 against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan. While the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were tragic, she argued, the use of military force would not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. Her words of caution ultimately fell on deaf ears, and with it, the War on Terror began its reign of terror on civil liberties and American moral standing in the world.
At the forefront of the construction of what is now the national security state was the Office of Homeland Security, established by George W. Bush to coordinate “implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.”
Like a phrase ripped from Vonnegut, Orwell, or, less ironically, from McCarthyist propaganda.
Yet it was not merely anti-war leftists or Nader voters who were taken aback by the creation of a massive new office for “homeland security” and its subsequent elevation to a Cabinet department. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, notorious for being no staunch supporter of civil liberties during wartime, wrote in one memo, “The word ‘homeland’ is a strange word. ‘Homeland Defense’ sounds more German than American.”
Yes, that Donald Rumsfeld.
Civil rights groups and liberal members of Congress were more vehemently opposed to the idea. Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) mocked the proposed agency’s numerous departments similar to existing ones, comparing it to if someone had “set up two fire departments in the same town and assigned one to handle arson and another fires caused by accident.” Obey’s Wisconsinite colleague, Sen. Russ Feingold (D), remarked that the agency’s existence came “at the expense of unnecessarily undermining our privacy rights” and “weakening protections against unwarranted government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans.”
These canaries in the coal mine, including Barbara Lee, recognized early on that DHS both posed an imminent threat to civil liberties and would exacerbate the very interagency coordination problems it was tasked with resolving. They highlighted its bureaucratic duplicity and foresaw that it would complicate state and federal coordination on natural disaster and pandemic response. They argued forcefully that its lack of public accountability would muzzle whistleblowers and shelter the agency from proper democratic oversight. Perhaps most presciently, these canaries foretold the inherent threat posed to democracy by a massive state security and surveillance force on American soil. As was all too common of the immediate post-9/11 era, their dissents went unheard as hawkish congressional Republicans and centrist Democrats like Joe Lieberman eager to prove to their constituents that they weren’t “soft” on terror convinced the initially reticent Bush Administration that DHS was necessary.
All too predictably, DHS has shown itself to be entirely incapable and unwilling to act in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution. Like a pesky weed in the garden of the American taxpayer and citizen, the agency has expanded its powers and duties over more aspects of American life while destroying anything resembling a just balance between American security and civil liberties. Seemingly every original critique of this proposed Orwellian behemoth has proven to be tragically true and unsettling.
With the threat of international terrorism largely receded and the War on Terror’s frighteningly militaristic mindset continuing to escalate the intrusive, inhumane and undemocratic practices of DHS under the Trump Administration, it has never been more clear that this mistake of an agency ought to be banished to the ashheap of history and abolished altogether.
DHS is not a single rash decision taken by an insecure Congress and a power hungry president in the aftermath of a grave tragedy. It is a symbol of a society and political system that can only find answers to political and social problems through an increasingly militaristic lens.
One way DHS has threatened American democracy is by undermining both the First Amendment and protections against unreasonable surveillance. Balancing national security with respect for the privacy and speech rights of citizens is one of the most crucial tasks of a democracy in the 21st century. Yet DHS has repeatedly infringed unduly on law-abiding citizens and their civil liberties, chilling free speech and championing invasive surveillance and search methods. Reminiscent of FBI efforts to brand civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. as “Black Identity Extremists” and communist operatives and blackmail or harm them, contemporary DHS has surveilled Black Lives Matter activist groups, taking data from peaceful protests and silent vigils in 2015 during the Freddie Gray protests to watch and intimidate protesters. DHS has also utilized “fusion centers,” ostensibly designed as synapses for threat intelligence sharing between federal, state, and local agencies, to spy on First Amendment-protected events such as the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2012 and the recent nationwide protests against the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. Similarly, the Transportation and Security Administration’s (TSA) dystopian sounding “behavior detection” program, in which TSA agents observe airplane passengers for behaviors associated with anxiety, fear, or deception, have been found by the ACLU to be rife with anti-Muslim bias.
Not even the free exercise of religion is safe from DHS intrusion. Its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program was determined by the Brennan Center for Justice to have infiltrated mosques and community centers to surveil and systematically profile Muslims, tending to “mask efforts to gather intelligence, identify individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing for surveillance, recruit informants, and co-opt community leaders to promote government messaging,” all while failing to make any significant inroads in reducing extremism or even the presence of extremist ideas. The fear of terrorism cannot possibly be justified to create state-sanctioned networks that treat national security as a pretext for surveillance activities that render entire religious and ethnic communities as suspect, deterring them from participating in everyday religious or political practices.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the federal response to police brutality protests in Portland last month. Unbadged, camouflage clad federal agents fired tear gas and potentially skull-piercing “non-lethal” rubber bullets at peaceful protesters while other militarized agents of DHS departments swiped activists off the street and took them in unmarked vans. DHS also took advantage of the justice system by arresting yet more protesters only to release them on the flagrantly unconstitutional condition that they “avoid protests, rallies, assemblies, or public gatherings” (in one case extending even beyond merely the jurisdiction of Portland). Just in case there was any ambiguity whether the hawkish national security position accommodated any sort of civil liberties, DHS decided to make clear that the First Amendment no longer applies to Americans acting peacefully in a way that is contrary to the desires of a racist president and his secret police.
DHS, more than any single agency or event since the infamous Korematsu v. United States, has institutionalized xenophobia and nativism at the core of American immigration policy. From their inception, DHS agencies Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have formed the backbone of a rigid deportation machine that has unfairly equated mothers and children braving the Rio Grande and the desert for a chance at a better life free from persecution with the very terrorists who knocked down the Twin Towers. It is tempting to place the blame for this solely on the Trump Administration- for it was his DHS that abetted the horrific family separation policy at the border and it was his ICE that has increased arrests by nearly 50 percent while arrests of migrants without criminal records have more than doubled.
Yes, Trump has built the “deportation force” he pledged to establish. Yes, ICE and CBP are increasingly inhumane, arresting parents at the schools where they drop off their children and arresting professors who have been in the U.S. for decades like Kansas’s Syed Jamal and activists who have been critical of the agency, like New York’s Jean Montrevil. But the fact remains that while Trump has significantly escalated DHS’s xenophobia, the machinery for such an authoritarian escalation was right in front of us the whole time.
The moral bankruptcy of ICE and CBP is best understood in the context of their original powers and goals. For ICE, one of its original goals was to remove 100 percent of “removable aliens” and to create the deportation infrastructure necessary to do so within a decade, no matter the criminal record or contributions to society of said “removable aliens.” While ICE failed to meet this goal, it, along with partnerships between ICE and local police departments, set the tone for two decades of senseless deportations that made nobody any safer, the migrants included.
CBP, on the other hand, has authority under federal regulations to operate within 100 miles of any external U.S. boundary (an area home to ⅔ of the American population) and set up immigration checkpoints. In theory, there are Fourth Amendment compliant protections against arbitrary stopping and searching of cars to determine if an immigration crime has occurred. However, CBP has routinely ignored these checks on their authority, stopping, interrogating, and searching Americans in the border regions with no suspicion of wrongdoing and often in ways prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. For instance, CBP agents have, on multiple occasions, used violence to remove motorists from their cars when they refused to answer questions and asserted their constitutional rights. There are also numerous accounts of CBP agents refusing to inform the motorists they stop of the cause of their stop and conducting unreasonable, non-consensual, invasive searches.
Even under Barack Obama, while arrests and deportations were much less prevalent than under the Clinton and Bush administrations, they reached more than five million thanks to the Administration’s tough on immigration pivot to try (and fail) to bring Senate Republicans to the table to negotiate on immigration reform. ICE and CBP today are fundamentally brutal beyond repair, the main cogs in a nativist machine meant to criminalize desperation and drum up fear against innocent people fleeing their own various versions of hell. Rather than fighting terrorists, DHS today is targeting parents, domestic violence victims, victims of gang violence, and sick children while trampling upon any semblance of due process. The law and order agency, in other words, is becoming increasingly lawless.
Finally, DHS is a bureaucratic catchall without proper oversight. The most striking example is in the area of grants to local law enforcement. When DHS was created, there were already two programs dedicated to providing police departments with equipment: the controversial 1033 Department of Defense program that provides surplus military gear to departments and the Justice Department’s also controversial Byrne grant program. DHS also has its own set of grant programs to help departments buy military equipment for counterterrorism operations but it is often instead used for routine drug enforcement. To keep score, instead of zero, the only acceptable number of police militarization programs, the federal government now has three, creating oversight problems that demonstrate why none of the programs should exist in the first place. With three different programs, it is harder to track how the equipment gets used and thus it becomes more difficult to punish departments that misuse their grants (which, spoiler alert, is a lot of them, with the purpose of furthering the War on Drugs’ awful legacy of mass incarceration). Furthermore, nothing can stop a motivated department from simply turning to the other two programs if one of them terminates aid to the department on the basis of misuse. This contributes further to the never-ending cycle of police militarization that praises excessive use of force and broken windows policing, fueling mass incarceration.
There are those who observe these failings and may ask why the department must be fully abolished rather than merely reformed. In Callins v Collins (1994), Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun renounced the institution of capital punishment for the first time, famously writing, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Likewise, we must no longer tinker with the machinery of deportation and unchecked surveillance in search of a more fair and just way to implement a uniquely unfair and unjust set of policies. If these deficiencies were unique to a single program or department of DHS, perhaps the system could be reformed. But as Matt Ford writes in The New Republic, “[T]he problem is both cultural and systemic. The department will always be the hastily assembled product of a dark, paranoid moment in American history. It also helps give permanence to that moment, preventing the country from moving beyond the post-9/11 era.” DHS was always going to become an authoritarian agency unchecked by proper oversight and, as with every other empire in history, the tools of empire would come home, surveilling, intimidating, and silencing the chief executive’s subjects at home.
The only way to get out of this authoritarian tailspin is to abolish DHS altogether. American history went on for 226 years, the vast majority of the history of the republic, without tear gas in the streets of Portland and immigrant children locked up in cages, or this bumbling, behemoth, out-of-control giveaway to contractors and private prison financiers it calls DHS. DHS is younger than Zion Williamson, Shrek, the iPod, Maroon 5, and oh, I don’t know, many of the very people it deports and yet the American government did just fine without it.
Absolutely nothing of value will be lost if the 22 different agencies that were thrown haphazardly into DHS like a high schooler’s laundry are simply put back to where they were before 9/11, with some tweaks. Practically speaking, this means the reversal of the Homeland Security Act establishing the department and the absolute abolition of ICE and the transfer of its significantly neutered immigration powers back to the Justice Department, where they will be less susceptible to abuse by more professional and competent officials. CBP would also be abolished with its customs duties sent back to the Treasury Department, where the Customs Service used to be. Citizenship and immigration affairs can go to the State Department, the Secret Service back to the Treasury or the Executive Office of the President, and whatever else remains can be merged under a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that is independent like it used to be.
All of the components of this reform mean to finally turn the page on the post-9/11 era and to take back the dignity of the American people and those longing to come to America from a nativist, neo-fascist mindset that has been allowed to fester for two decades. In the final analysis, DHS is not a single rash decision taken by an insecure Congress and a power hungry president in the aftermath of a grave tragedy. It is a symbol of a society and political system that can only find answers to political and social problems through an increasingly militaristic lens. A society that can host hundreds of military bases in almost half of the world’s countries, that can deploy troops to the Middle East, or the border, or now Portland, yet be completely devoid of a moral compass. In the end, the tools of empire always return home. We became the evil we claimed to deplore
DHS offered American politicians a false choice between liberty and security while all the while it made Americans less secure and threatened their civil liberties. The only choice we have now is to end its reign of terror over the American people and abolish it for good.
A.J. Manuzzi is a senior double-majoring in International Relations and Political Science. He is an editor for domestic affairs at the Agora.
Image courtesy Michael Best (U.S. Air Force), Creative Commons