The Department of Homeland Security Turns 20. Its Legacy Is Disastrous.

Surveilling American citizens without due process, separating undocumented children from their parents, the TSA—the DHS has been a failure.


To those who don't remember the events of September 11, 2001, it can be difficult to convey the sense of dread and uncertainty that followed. As horrible as the attacks were, many of us wondered: What's next?

It was in this context that Congress quickly passed, and President George W. Bush signed, such legislation as the USA PATRIOT Act, less than two months after 9/11. While that law was drafted with the best of intentions—strengthening the nation's defenses against potential future attacks—in practice, authorities overwhelmingly use it to circumvent Americans' basic freedoms like privacy and due process.

Similarly, less than a month after the attacks, Bush signed an executive order establishing the Office of Homeland Security. The office would "coordinate the executive branch's efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States."

But that was apparently not enough: In June 2002, Bush proposed an entirely new Cabinet department dedicated to "transforming and realigning the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland." Bush's proposal promised that by consolidating multiple agencies under a single director, the new department would "improve efficiency without growing government."

In November of that year, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and brought nearly two dozen disparate agencies, including the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, under its purview. The newly incorporated department officially opened 20 years ago today, on March 1, 2003.

The department's stated intent was to prevent terrorist attacks and protect the homeland. Twenty years later, what is there to show for it?

For the 2023 fiscal year, Congress appropriated over $82 billion for DHS, nearly double the $43.4 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars it received in its first year in operation, though notably less than the $97.3 billion the department requested. And for all that money, the DHS is more of an assemblage of wasteful individual agencies than the hyper-efficient singular operator it was billed as.

The TSA, which came into being just weeks after 9/11, harasses airline travelers every year but routinely fails to detect explosives and weapons in test scenarios. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), formed under the Homeland Security Act, formalized the expeditious removal of undocumented immigrants regardless if they posed a threat to American citizens. Poor living conditions and sexual abuse ran rampant in detention facilities, and that was even before the government took to intentionally separating undocumented children from their parents.

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.

Even at the outset, the prospect of a Cabinet-level department dedicated to preventing terrorism was controversial: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned in June 2002 that a then-theoretical DHS would be "long on secrecy and short on much needed accountability" and represent "a threat to the American tradition of open government." With two decades of history, not only was that warning prescient, it may have been understated. It's long past time to stop throwing good money after bad and dissolve the department.