It’s easy to forget that the Department of Homeland Security — the newest addition to the U.S. Cabinet — is less than two decades old. And yet it commands a yearly budget of some $50 billion, employing 240,000 people, which makes it the third-largest cabinet department. DHS came into being, of course, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Broadly speaking, it exists to anticipate, prevent and and coordinate the national response to both human threats and natural disaster.
But the fast-expanding department showed how ill-suited it was to this mission as it absorbed others, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That bitter marriage set the stage for our catastrophic failure to mitigate the death toll and damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cultural memory holds FEMA and its then-director, Michael D. Brown, a characteristically inexperienced George W. Bush appointee, responsible for the extent of that horror — and it’s true that FEMA was unprepared. Yet Brown had also warned in a 2003 memo that putting the DHS in charge of their operations would “fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions” and “break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders.”
A bipartisan Congressional investigation later “sought to recognize that DHS and Secretary Michael Chertoff have primary responsibility for managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster,” and failed on almost every level, from their lack of planning and training to their garbled communications and delayed action. It didn’t help that DHS had instilled a “bureaucratic mindset that now emphasizes terrorism” to the exclusion of threats like catastrophic weather — and oversaw allocation of grants and funds with that short-sighted view.
Meanwhile, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, was also restructured under the DHS umbrella, giving us both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These two agencies are reviled by leftists and liberals as strongholds of President Trump’s favorite footsoldiers, but again, it was the Bush administration that created them — as Trump enacted the zero-tolerance policy that separated thousands of minors from their parents at the border, migrants wound up in ICE custody, where they are subject to sexual abuse, medical neglect and use of violent force.
Calls to “Abolish ICE” became common in response to these ghastly stories; few acknowledged, however, that DHS had taken over immigration services from the Department of Justice in 2003 and brought their counter-terrorist obsessions to the job. That could be why ICE detention centers now resemble Guantanamo Bay, and why they tout crackdowns on boogeymen like the MS-13 gang, which in turn are celebrated by a White House that falsely paints this group as highly organized, bloodthirsty invaders with aspirations of total war on U.S. soil. This is, essentially, the post-9/11 style of xenophobia and paranoia applied to Latin America instead of the Middle East.
While DHS has often skirted responsibility for all manner of outrage, growing in scope and influence as it does, it may now be too big and too unchecked to ignore. The department is the face of federal action in Portland, Oregon, where unidentified agents in combat fatigues are pulling protesters off the street into unmarked vans, without probable cause or due process. Rather than deny this is happening, Acting Secretary of DHS Chad Wolf (yeah, I know) is loudly taking credit for it, even threatening the same in other cities, with Chicago the first on the list.
Wolf is emblematic of a department now mostly led by “temporary” officeholders who were never confirmed by Congress and retain their positions by way of complete obedience to Trump. He came to the DHS in 2018, from Transportation Security Administration, to serve as then Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s chief of staff; emails from that time reveal him to be a primary author of the family separation policy that Trump seems to have judged insufficiently extreme, leading to Nielsen’s ouster. Her replacement, Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of CBP, was obviously picked to maintain focus on the border, but he, too, chafed at Trump’s aggressive, propagandistic approach, and lasted only six months.
Wolf was the guy left over — someone on a rudderless ship where nobody else met the president’s fancy — and he’s clearly figured out since that the DHS tradition of extrajudicial vengeance against supposed terrorists can be shifted to another target: leftist American demonstrators. Trump, as expected, loves this pivot.
Even if you think Trump and his cronies are unprecedented, you have to admit that the mechanism of this reprisal — the DHS — was there for anyone in power to use. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has argued, it should not exist. It bends other, useful agencies to its purpose, which is to treat individuals in the U.S. as our military complex would a foreign combatant abroad: in contravention of American laws and norms, and largely beyond accountability. Chad Wolf is as unqualified to run it as Michael Brown was to head FEMA, but with a far greater influence and a zealous belief in authoritarian rule. He needs to go, along with the whole superstructure, which was born from the same foolish impulse that brought us the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
We can’t begin to grapple with the realities of immigration, climate change and marches for social change until a department designed to classify everything as terrorism is removed from government. The DHS is no grand, storied, democratic institution, but a recent, dysfunctional embarrassment — and a continued danger to civil liberty.
And if you broke it up, only someone like Trump would miss it.