Although some activists have urged the government to abolish its immigration enforcement arm, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) came out in favor of eradicating the entire Department of Homeland Security.
The department’s creation after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, significantly threatened American civil liberties, Ocasio-Cortez said Tuesday on the WNYC podcast “the New Yorker Radio Hour.” She said she wanted to get rid of Homeland Security, the formation of which she called an “egregious mistake.”
“People sounded the alarm back then, that these agencies are extrajudicial, that they lack effective oversight, and it is baked into the core foundational structure of these agencies,” she told the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick.
Conservative political figures immediately castigated the congresswoman’s proposal.
“Moronic, stupid, naive and dumb,” former White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove said on Fox News.
"Absolute irresponsibility,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told reporters, according to the Washington Examiner.
The usefulness of a Department of Homeland Security, however, wasn’t always taken for granted. President George W. Bush’s administration initially had “zero interest” in creating a new department to protect against terrorism, The Washington Post previously reported. Vice President Richard B. Cheney thought it would needlessly increase the size of government.
“Creating a Cabinet post doesn’t solve the problem,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in March 2002, according to The Post.
Some members of Congress worried the White House was concealing the department’s true cost to avoid alienating Republicans who opposed the growth of government, USA Today reported in 2002. Certain conservative Republicans, meanwhile, said they would not oppose Bush’s proposal but wanted to move slowly, according to the Houston Chronicle.
When the House of Representatives initially voted on the department’s creation the following July, 132 members opposed the move, including 10 Republicans. Congress eventually passed the Homeland Security Act and Bush signed it into law that November, creating the Department of Homeland Security.
Ocasio-Cortez said Wednesday that her proposal was “not that radical,” citing the reluctance of some members of Congress to support the department’s creation less than two decades ago.
“When DHS was 1st formed by Bush 17 years ago, many members of Congress were concerned — incl GOP — that we were setting up a ticking time bomb for civil liberties erosion & abuse of power,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Like some members of Congress, non-politicians also criticized the new department, which merged 22 federal agencies tasked with securing the country’s borders, protecting its infrastructure and guarding against terrorism.
James Bamford, a journalist and filmmaker who covers intelligence agencies, told CBS News in 2002 that creating Homeland Security was a public relations move that could actually decrease efficiency.
“Instead of moving people together, you should be moving information together,” Bamford told CBS. “You should be taking information and finding better ways to distribute it; faster ways to distribute it among people.”
In a 2003 article in National Review, conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru criticized Bush’s record as president, noting that Bush had “raised defense spending, given new powers to law enforcement, federalized airport security and created a new cabinet department for homeland security. . . . More people are working for the federal government than at any point since the end of the Cold War.”
Homeland Security was originally staffed by 180,000 employees from the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal offices. It also encompasses the agencies that oversee immigration, including Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Homeland Security now has a workforce of more than 240,000, making it the government’s third-biggest department, behind Defense and Veterans Affairs.
The Transportation Security Administration, which screens passengers at airports, was absorbed into Homeland Security just a year after it was created in response to 9/11 in November 2001. Conservatives at the time expressed concern that the new agency was unnecessarily bureaucratic and gave too much power to the government.
“Before 9/11, the prevailing conservative/libertarian/Republican opinion of the national-security state — of any government effort to protect Americans at the point of a gun and the touch of a rubber glove — was mistrust,” Slate reported. “The second most common opinion was fear.”
Republicans’ ire for the TSA survived a decade after the agency’s creation. Then-Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) in 2011 said Americans were “no safer today than they were before 9/11,” according to Forbes. The GOP’s 2012 presidential platform called for the privatization of airport security.
Calls to abolish Homeland Security are now made year after year, in publications ranging from policy journals to mainstream news outlets. In a tweet from 2018 shared by Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) recalled a time when conservatives viewed Homeland Security as overly bureaucratic.
“Conservatives used to want to abolish DHS — as well as many other departments and agencies that bloat government,” wrote Amash, who announced on the Fourth of July that he was leaving the Republican Party. “If only today’s members of Congress cared as much about defending the Constitution as they do about defending ICE, an agency that’s existed only since 2003.”