The U.S. Department of Homeland Security turned 20 years old on March 1, and perhaps a review of the activities of an agency that, more than any other, has trampled on the constitutional rights of Americans would be in order.
The DHS is a poster child for the government trying to do the right thing and only screwing matters up even more. The impetus for creating DHS was to unite the disparate intelligence and national security agencies under one roof. But its mandate was confusing, and the lines of communication were byzantine and repetitive.
When Congress passed the Homeland Security Act in 2002 it brought nearly two dozen federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, under its control. The $82 billion department is supposed to protect us from terrorists. It’s debatable whether it has or not. Many think we’re just incredibly lucky in that respect.
But beyond the bureaucratic waste and redundancy, there is the national security state, which has grown beyond control and now routinely surveils American citizens. It’s this and other actions taken in the name of “national security” that has had civil liberties advocates up in arms from the beginning.
As for DHS itself, the department aggressively surveils American citizens, including Muslims and those with views deemed unsavory or disfavored, with little regard for either privacy or effectiveness. It heads up prostitution raids which it then categorizes as “sex trafficking stings.” And the department’s actions also have pernicious downstream effects: Authorities in Atlanta charged multiple nonviolent protesters with domestic terrorism for membership in a group the DHS dubbed “Domestic Violent Extremists.”
Additionally, despite being sold as a model of efficiency, DHS’ structure is anything but: Agencies exist within DHS that must coordinate with similarly tasked agencies in other departments, creating a confusing mishmash spanning multiple chains of command. And in 2019, an inspector general report found that the DHS’ ranks were a hotbed of misconduct, including sleeping on the job and misusing agency funds, and it seemed to lack a sufficient internal reporting system.
Incompetent and dangerous to American liberties — a lethal combination.
How did we get to this point? While terrorism was not a new phenomenon, what was new was America being a target of a mass casualty attack and the realization that we were wide open to even more serious attacks unless we got our act together.
Also read: Suddenly Domestic Terrorism Charges Are a Problem Now That Atlanta Is Using Them Against Antifa
The government played on the genuine fear that some people felt about terrorism and rammed through the Patriot Act. What Congress didn’t take into account was the endless hubris and greed for power and control of some in the national security bureaucracy.
The Patriot Act expanded the ability of intelligence agencies to search private property and expanded the government’s ability to look at records of an individual’s activity being held by a third party. In the name of “security,” the FBI and CIA were able to circumvent some constitutional protections — often for reasons having nothing to do with criminal activity (Carter Page).
This wasn’t meant to be. For such monumental changes in law, there was very little debate about creating DHS. Both parties bought into the rationale and necessity for creating DHS.
Twenty years later, there are plenty of regrets.