Privacy SOS

The monster in our midst

It’s no secret that the Department of Homeland Security with some 200,000 employees is a federal bureaucracy on steroids.

Just think of everything it has brought us its creation in 2003 – fusion centers, 800,000 local and state operatives filing suspicious activity reports, “If You See Something, Say Something” citizen snoops, high tech surveillance paraphernalia for local police, naked body scanning machines at airports, searches of people getting off trains, border fence (and many other) boondoggles, patrolling drones:  all the building blocks of a half trillion dollar national security surveillance state.  

We know that the focus on “homeland security” has led to a breathtaking squandering of funds and out-of-control duplication of domestic “intelligence-gathering” efforts, extending to the competing ISE (Information Sharing Environment) of the DHS and the FBI’s e-Guardian system.  

But what has received almost no public attention is the out-of-control duplication of the DHS’ internal oversight mechanisms. In addition to the DHS inspector general’s office with 200 investigators in 33 offices across the country hunting down corruption, waste, fraud and abuse, there are six other DHS agencies with authority to conduct corruption investigations.  

Many of them have overlapping jurisdictions. And sometimes separate DHS corruption-hunting agencies unknowingly investigate the same allegations or employee at the same time. 

There is a turf battle going on between the DHS inspector general’s office and the other DHS investigative agencies, especially that of Customs and Border Protection. And that’s not all.  

There is an even bigger turf war going on between the DHS corruption investigators and their Justice Department rival, the FBI, which has the authority to investigate corruption anywhere.  

The result? According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), “the inspector general has sat on cases rather than allow outside investigators from the FBI or Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs to pursue them, agents say. The inspector general had 2,564 open investigations as of Sept. 30, 2011, the end of the last fiscal year, up nearly 23 percent from the previous year.”

Oops! It sounds like it is time to investigate the investigators. And that is precisely what the FBI has done.

The result has been “turmoil” within the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) as it attempts to deal with FBI charges that “its agents in Texas were told to falsify reports ahead of an office inspection last fall.” 

Thomas Frost, the DHS’ Assistant Inspector General, is the head of the Office of Investigations, looking into allegations of misconduct involving DHS employees, contractors, grantees and programs. He was placed on leave until late March while the FBI pursued allegations that the Texas field office of the DHS OIG had lied about the investigations it was carrying out in order to show progress was being made.

Frost’s deputy John Ryan was reportedly also placed on leave. He had been appointed in 2010 to “coordinate DHS assets” that were committed to a joint FBI-DHS Border Corruption Task Force – a newly created position that sounds like a (vain) attempt to stem FBI-DHS rivalry. A federal grand jury has meanwhile been convened in Washington DC to look into charges of corruption within the DHS corruption-hunting branch.  

Folding 22 federal agencies into the DHS was supposed to be a way of streamlining efforts to ensure the “security of the homeland.” It was seen as a way of dismantling “stovepipes” and circumventing problems the Bush Administration did not like to dwell on, including the dysfunction and interagency rivalries (chiefly between the FBI and CIA) that contributed to the bungling of a multitude of opportunities to foil the 9/11 plot.   

The decision was taken to leave the FBI with the Justice Department and the CIA as a stand alone agency, all but ensuring an ongoing struggle for turf and funds. 

In less than a decade, the DHS has itself become a monster of a problem and is now outflanked by one of the chief bunglers of 9/11, the FBI – an agency with no permanent Department of Justice OIG in place to exercise oversight, and plenty to hide.   

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.