Late last week, what US federal authorities named ‘Operation Diligent Valor’ appeared to be coming to an end in Portland, Oregon. As part of the operation, ostensibly to protect federal buildings after weeks of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Department of Homeland Security deployed officers from the alphabet soup of agencies it oversees to the streets of the city.
Despite the public relations nightmare unfolding in the city, the current president was undeterred in his demand to extend federal policing in a highly politicized way to urban areas throughout the country, telling reporters, “New York and Chicago and Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore and all of these—Oakland is a mess—we are not going to let this happen in the country, all run by liberal Democrats. We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you.”
Soon after statements like these from Trump and other officials, accompanied by images of federal agents firing teargas at and pulling protesters into unmarked vehicles, we began to hear loud calls from the American left to abolish or at least defund DHS. Interestingly, these calls echoed an argument heavily criticized by the mainstream press when it was made by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick last year.
When asked if she would dismantle the department, the Congresswoman representing New York’s 14th district replied, “I think so, I think so. I think we need to undo a lot of the egregious, a lot of the egregious mistakes that the Bush administration did. I feel like we are at a very, it’s a very qualified and supported position, at least in terms of evidence, and in terms of being able to make the argument, that we never should’ve created DHS in the early 2000s.”
These comments came after the department took a leading role in working alongside local authorities to crush protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to Standing Rock, the latter which Ocasio Cortez has said was a kind of political awakening for her.
Chad Wolf, who worked for Wexler and Walker, a prominent Washington, DC based lobbying firm, is the current acting head of Homeland Security. One obvious problem among many in terms of his appointment is that Wolf, who is the 5th person to lead DHS in the last 3 and a half years, hasn’t been confirmed by the United States Senate. This is yet another example of the current Executive Branch remaking norms in a way even some of their supporters may come to regret in the years ahead.
Adding to this patina of corruption, as reported on Wednesday by CNBC, Wolf has allegedly signed off on $160 million in DHS contracts to former clients from his decade as a lobbyist.
Another big problem stems from the fact that under his former boss, Kirstjen Nielsen, who ran Homeland Security from 2017 until April of last year, the ow acting secretary was one of the architects of the cruel family separation policy at the country’s southern border.
The roll out of this policy created similar calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency created at the same time as and under DHS’ purview. The separation policy was meant to deter would be asylum seekers and refugees in violation of international law. Encouraged by the current president’s cynical nativism, ICE has used increasingly extreme measures to go after the undocumented at the behest of people like Wolf and Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president who’s become quite influential in crafting the country’s immigration policies.
The tactics used by ICE for most of this young century, as explained by Benjamin Prado of the American Friends Service Committee two years ago in an editorial for the San Diego Tribune, are eerily similar to what we just saw in Portland, “Early in its creation, ICE used questionable tactics, functioning as a secretive police force; entering a community in unmarked vehicles brandishing a federal agent badge or jacket and taking people away in unmarked vehicles with no license plates. This practice continues to this date. The scenes have been effectively viewed as kidnappings as families targeted were not informed of what agency was carrying out the detention.”
As with almost anything in the country’s increasingly bought and paid for political system, there are powerful interests that will use their influence over politicians to protect the activities and funding of both ICE and DHS. Even as municipalities deny the former the use of their taxpayer funded jails, private prison companies have been filling the void, creating a large revenue stream for themselves in the process.
While sources on the left like Jacobin have joined the activist chorus currently calling for dismantling DHS, commentators at many center right outlets have done so for years without stirring up much controversy.
Having said this, different from the mostly policy based arguments being made by progressives at present, some of the focus of earlier, more conservative voices critical of DHS was on the name of the department itself, with many finding fault with the word ‘homeland’.
When DHS was being created in 2002, columnist Peggy Noonan was already criticizing the proposed name on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, offering a view that now seems quaint in an environment in which a Republican president calls white supremacists “very fine people”, writing, “The name Homeland Security grates on a lot of people, understandably. Homeland isn’t really an American word, it’s not something we used to say or say now. It has a vaguely Teutonic ring–Ve must help ze Fuehrer protect ze Homeland!–and Republicans must always be on guard against sounding Teutonic.”
Another, more pressing problem for those conservatives who routinely complain about the size of government, only two other departments, Veterans Affairs and Defense, are bigger than DHS, which has almost half a million employees, a quarter of whom serve in policing roles.
Writing in the New Republic, reporter Matt Ford expressed concern about the sheer size of the department in 2018, explaining how it grew exponentially from its origin in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, “As the Hart-Rudman Commission had proposed, DHS incorporated FEMA and the Coast Guard. The department also absorbed the entire Immigration and Naturalization Service, merging the Border Patrol and the Customs Service to create Customs and Border Protection and moving the INS’ domestic enforcement functions into Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Coast Guard and Secret Service were brought under DHS, too. All told, the department combined 22 agencies from across the government.”
For many years the American right, from anti-government libertarians to the conspiratorial fringe, have claimed that the U.S. government and agencies associated with DHS, in particular, were the greatest danger to their liberty, especially during the presidency of Barack Obama. If the current president has revealed anything it’s how hypocritical their politics are. Seeing masked DHS agents go after BLM supporters and ‘radical leftists’ they consider enemies, all of their previous objections to this kind of authoritarian overreach faded away.
In an editorial in the Washington Post last Thursday, Richard A. Clarke, who served on the National Security Council under three presidents and has hardly distinguished himself as a friend to the left, made an important point about how DHS’ name has come to affect its culture in a negative way, “Federal departments and agencies develop personalities and images from their mission, and they attract people who identify with those personas. These identities are almost immutable, but new organizational designs and branding can reinvigorate and redirect agencies. Breaking up the DHS could have positive results.”
Although the department has already promised to retire the camouflage uniforms worn by its forces in Portland, it may be too little too late for such a cosmetic change to matter as these images of what conservatives used to call ‘jack-booted thugs’ are already seared into the memories of many Americans, especially on the progressive left.
Nonetheless, under a potential Biden Administration come next year, these calls will need to continue in order to at the very least reform a department that has struggled to fulfill even its most basic missions, something that should have already been clear after the disastrous responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Maria.