Privacy SOS

DHS is having an identity crisis

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in November 2002 was the largest reorganization of the federal government in half a century. DHS would consolidate 23 government agencies under one roof, with the express purpose of streamlining and uniting departments behind a new anti-terrorism front.

"The primary mission of the department is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States," stated the law establishing DHS.

But a lot has changed in the intervening years, and even former high level officials are calling into question the legitimacy of the current organizational framework.

For one thing, DHS is now gargantuan. The Department has grown substantially in the twelve years since its creation: its 180,000 employees have turned into 240,000, who spend a budget that jumped from $29 billion to $61 billion.

DHS’ mission has also sprawled far afield of its original boundaries. Like the nearly 100 "fusion centers" DHS set up in its first years, the third-largest federal agency’s mission has crept from the coherent and well-defined (if extreme) "counterterrorism" to the loose and shape-shifting "all crimes/all hazards".

Thankfully, there isn’t enough terrorism to keep the agency and its hundreds of thousands of employees busy. But in its absence, what is DHS doing? And why is it growing while other parts of the federal government, like food assistance to the poor, are shrinking?

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

Today, in addition to protecting America’s borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.

Even the first director of DHS, George W. Bush appointee Tom Ridge, is calling into question the size and efficacy of the organization he once led.

"They’ve kind of lost their way," Ridge told the Journal. "I was proud to be associated with those men and women, but it just seems to me … the focus – the primary focus – has been substantially diminished. Someone needs to explain to me how critical all these new people are to the nation. Are they (DHS) getting so big they’re actually making work?"

A glance at the regions near US borders suggests that it's not just DHS that is making work, but also Congress. For years, both parties in the legislative branch of the federal government have showered the Border Patrol with money for militarization and surveillance projects. It's led to misery and extreme repression in the southwest, for both citizens and immigrants alike.

How many terrorists have been captured as a result of this border war? Zero.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.