Founded 20 years ago in the panic-stricken days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was originally tasked with guarding the borders and preventing similar future assaults from abroad. Since then, the agency's focus has shifted to enemies closer to home in the form of Americans the government has tagged as potential threats. That's unfortunate, because throughout its brief existence, DHS has demonstrated poor judgment, worse respect for individual liberties, and an impressive inability to implement necessary reforms of the sort that watchdogs now recommend.
"What we, in the Department of Homeland Security, have assessed it that the greatest terrorism-related threat that we face in the homeland is a threat of domestic violent extremism: individuals drawn to violence because of ideologies of hate or false narratives propagated on social media and other online platforms," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the national convention of Al Sharpton's National Action Network in New York City on April 8. "And the most prominent threat is the threat of white supremacists."
The shift from chasing external threats to looking for those found inside the country is no surprise to anybody familiar with DHS's political sensitivities. Just as Republicans fret over immigrants, Democrats worry about radicals under the bed. Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election meant DHS announcements stopped talking about border walls in favor of warning about "domestic violent extremists" motivated by the "online proliferation of false or misleading narratives." But it's still the same plodding bureaucracy with lots of resources and only a modicum of decency.
"The department has aggressively targeted Muslims, communities of color, and social justice movements in the name of security," Faiza Patel, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, and Harsha Panduranga warn in a Brennan Center for Justice report on the Department of Homeland Security published last week. "It conceals information about its vast databases and intrusive surveillance technologies. And it often embarks on ventures that implicate Americans' privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties without even establishing or measuring their usefulness.
These problems have long festered due to a dangerous combination of broad authorities, weak safeguards, and insufficient oversight," they add.
In keeping with DHS's initial focus on radical Islamists, the Brennan Center report details its surveillance and mistreatment of minorities, especially "American Muslims, traumatizing entire communities and casting them as hotbeds of terrorism." It makes sense that relatively powerless people would suffer under the wrath of hostile government attention. Then again, by comparison to the budgets, powers, and toys available to federal agents, we're all pretty powerless. And there's precedent for official misbehavior no matter who draws the government's attention.
"Infringing upon constitutionally-given freedoms in the name of national security is not limited to the Muslim Americans in the present day; rather, practices including the use of confidential informants, undercover operations, and entrapment are part of the history of surveillance operations conducted by U.S. law enforcement," Oxford University's Sara Kamali pointed out in a 2017 article for Surveillance and Society. "From 1991 to 1993, almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks brought the word 'terrorism' into the cultural lexicon, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was conducting the surveillance of 'anti-government, racist, anti-Semitic and/or Christian' activists who viewed themselves as Patriots."
So, we've actually been down this path before as one federal agency or another responds to political pressures to shift its attention to the targets of the moment. But no matter who ends up on the government's radar, "providing incentives to recruit informants, pitting community members against each other, and wielding egregious entrapment tactics, threatening a myriad of charges from immigration violations to tax fraud, to justify the war on terrorism make up the reality of how terrorists are created and caught in the post-9/11 world," Kamali points out.
Kamali recommends that counterterrorism and intelligence agencies should take civil liberties more seriously, as do the Brennan Center's analysts.
"This report identiﬁes ﬁve avenues for reform: stronger safeguards against proﬁling; better protections for privacy and free expression; rigorous evaluations of program efﬁcacy; meaningful transparency about data holdings and the implications DHS programs have for civil rights and civil liberties; and more robust internal oversight," write Patel, Levinson-Waldman, and Panduranga.
But there's little evidence that DHS has any interest or ability when it comes to admitting and correcting its flaws. Even the people specifically assigned to keep an eye on DHS seem more concerned with shielding the department from consequences for bad behavior than with tempering its malignancy.
"The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general and his top aides directed staff members to remove damaging findings from investigative reports on domestic violence and sexual misconduct by officers in the department's law enforcement agencies," Chris Cameron of The New York Times reported earlier this month. Among the information suppressed were descriptions of cash payouts to settle sexual harassment claims without going through formal procedures. "The inspector general, Joseph V. Cuffari, also directed his staff to remove parts of another draft report showing internal investigations had found that dozens of officers working at the agencies had committed domestic violence, but that they had received 'little to no discipline.'"
The documents were obtained and published by the Project on Government Oversight. Their existence was subsequently acknowledged by Mayorkas in an internal DHS memo. If history is any guide, don't hold your breath waiting for big reforms. Charles K. Edwards, a former DHS acting inspector general, was charged with stealing proprietary software and confidential databases from the federal government. He pleaded guilty in January of this year.
Don't harbor too much hope that DHS will improve its respect for people's rights. A federal agency whose official watchdog hides details of abusive conduct by its employees against their colleagues and family members when it's not pilfering property can't be trusted to be diligent about addressing civil liberties violations against the general public. That's especially true when those violations are seemingly a baked-in part of how the agency justifies its existence. To repeat the Brennan Center's warning, DHS suffers from "a dangerous combination of broad authorities, weak safeguards, and insufficient oversight," and it's not at all obvious how to fix what's so profoundly broken.