Department of Homeland Security

DHS Just Turned 20. It's Time To Abolish It.

Break it up into fewer, smaller agencies that are more accountable to pre-9/11 departments.


So the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is celebrating its 20th birthday—the perfect opportunity to rethink the whole concept of "homeland security" and how to best provide it. DHS has grown into a monster that is massively expensive, incredibly ineffective, and reliably destructive of basic civil liberties. It's time to abolish it and replace it with fewer, smaller, and more accountable agencies.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush called for the creation of a new cabinet-level department "whose primary mission is to protect the American homeland." By pulling border security, emergency services, and immigration into a single, streamlined bureaucracy, Bush promised that the new department would "improve efficiency without growing government." Instead, we got politically manipulated, color-coded terror alerts that only made life easier for late-night comedians. The DHS budget now stands at $82 billion, or almost double its original cost in inflation-adjusted dollars. Are there really twice as many threats to the homeland as there were when the embers at Ground Zero were still smoldering and the global war on terror was ramping up?

In the early days of the war on terror, Washington was obsessed with the idea that the 9/11 attacks happened because different agencies—notably the CIA, FBI, and NSA, none of whom are part of DHS—didn't communicate with each other. Hence the idea of "a unified homeland security structure."

But critics of DHS noted from the start that it didn't actually reduce bureaucracy or streamline much of anything. It just added a new layer of red tape on top of existing agencies while creating new ones, such as Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—both of which have become legendary for callousness, ineffectiveness, and root-level failures.

Similarly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has gone from catastrophic failure in New Orleans to catastrophic failure in Puerto Rico, updating its longstanding "stumblebum reputation" for the 21st century.

A 2019 inspector general report called out DHS for failing to rein in rampant bad behavior, ranging from padding expense accounts to drinking on the job and illegal reprisals against sexual-harassment whistleblowers. The report concluded no one was really in charge of organizing and inspecting reports of employee misbehavior. As President Biden likes to boast, DHS has almost 260,000 employees, yet its employee relations office told the inspector general it had "limited staffing to perform these functions and staff do not believe they are responsible for managing the allegation process."

Perhaps worst of all, DHS is a determined foe of civil liberties. As the ACLU documents in a new study of the department, DHS routinely undermines our ability to move freely about the very country it's supposed to be protecting. For instance, since immigration enforcement became part of a national security agenda, ICE agents encourage local police "to stop, arrest, and bring low-level charges against people who 'look' like immigrants, with the actual aim of helping ICE deport them." Looking like an immigrant isn't against the law and it shouldn't be a pretext for a police stop.

Any discussion of DHS must include the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which you might refer to as Thousands Standing Around, the Testicle Squeezing Agency, or any number of different euphemisms. Despite very occasional positive headlines, the TSA rightly looms large in the public imagination as a make-work program gone horribly wrong. Notorious for forcing mothers to test their own breast milk, scaring children, and pantsing the elderly, the TSA spends as much as $667 billion per life saved. On its 10th anniversary, two conservative Republican members of Congress even denounced the TSA, saying the degraded security theater it imposed on travelers did not improve on the safety protocols that were in place before 9/11.

To be fair, DHS' mission is simply too vast to accomplish. Having been tasked to do so many different things—from processing immigration checks to responding to natural disasters to checking passengers on every flight in America to stopping terrorism—it ends up doing all of them poorly. It would be better to break those functions up into smaller agencies that are directly accountable to departments that existed prior to 9/11.

As Richard A. Clarke, a 30-year veteran of security positions in the Defense Department, State Department, and White House, has suggested, it makes sense to create a smaller group tightly focused on terroristic threats that would work directly with the FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "Preserving the status quo," he writes, "will only perpetuate the mistakes made in the panicked trauma that followed 9/11 and doom these important missions to continued mishandling and lack of success."

As it celebrates its 20th birthday, it's time to blow out the candles on DHS.

Produced by Nick Gillespie and Justin Zuckerman; Sound editing by Ian Keyser; Additional graphics by John Osterhoudt

Credits: SIPA/Newscom; Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom; Image of Sport/Newscom; Liz Roll/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Mani Albrecht/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Glenn Fawcett/Cbp Photos/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Gary C. Caskey/UPI/Newscom; Paul Christian Gordon/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Erin Hooley/TNS/Newscom; Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom; ; State Department/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Travis Long/TNS/Newscom; Roberto E. Rosales/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Charles Reed/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ralph Desio/ZUMA Press/Newscom; CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT/Newscom; SMG/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Bryan Smith/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Bonnie Cash—Pool via CNP / MEGA / Newscom/RSSIL/Newscom; Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Manuel Ocano/EFE/Newscom; David Peinado/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Glenn Fawcett/Cbp Photos/ZUMA Press/Newscom; John J. Kim/TNS/Newscom; Everett Collection/Newscom; Eric Draper/ZUMA Press/Newscom; DAVID SWANSON/KRT/Newscom; Ron Sachs/picture alliance / Consolidated News Photos/Newscom; @ 2007 Owen D.B./ Black Star/Newscom; TOM PENNINGTON/KRT/Newscom; Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jocelyn Augustino/ZUMA Press/Newscom; David R. Frazier / Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom; ERIC DRAPER/KRT/Newscom; Bryan Smith/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Daniel Wallace/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Chris Kleponis—Pool via CNP/Newscom; Bastiaan Slabbers/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom