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DHS: A wasteful, growing, fear-mongering beast

In a terrific piece of reporting, the Albuquerque Journal’s Michael Coleman dives deep into the morass of fear, waste, and bureaucracy that is the Department of Homeland Security.

Today, in addition to protecting America’s borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.
Some government watchdogs and civil liberties advocates – and even the nation’s first Department of Homeland Security secretary – question how those actions serve the purpose set forth in the 2002 law.
“They’ve kind of lost their way,” former Secretary Tom Ridge told the Journal in Washington this month. “I was proud to be associated with those men and women, but it just seems to me … the focus – the primary focus – has been substantially diminished.”
Meanwhile, a top Homeland Security official in Albuquerque said the department wants to enlarge its law enforcement presence – at least in New Mexico – even more.
“I really do want to expand the footprint as far as my side of Homeland Security,” said Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, in a Journal interview.
“Too many people think we do immigration, and we don’t really do any of that at all.”
Homeland Security Investigations falls under the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and focuses “on a wide range of domestic and international activities” including financial and cyber crimes, narcotics, human smuggling and other offenses, according to the DHS website. The investigations unit has 10,000 employees and 6,700 special agents assigned to more than 200 U.S. cities and 47 foreign countries.

There was a time when “defending the homeland” was a function of, well, the Department of Defense. Today, that massive agency is really more about invading and rebuilding other countries. So we got the Department of Homeland Security. Which, inevitably, now includes missions overseas. Welcome to mission creep.

A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service last year found that more than a decade after the Department of Homeland Security’s creation – and despite the specific language in the law that created it – the sprawling agency still didn’t have a clear definition for “homeland security,” or a strategy for integrating the divergent missions that are supposed to achieve it. The report suggested the uncertainty could actually be compromising national security.
“The U.S. government does not have a single definition for ‘homeland security,’ ” the report said. “Multiple definitions, missions and an absence of prioritization results in consequences to the nation’s security.”
If there’s one thing government bureaucracies do really well, it’s find new reasons to justify their existence. So vague definitions will inevitably be interpreted as broadly as possible to create as wide a mission as possible.
Nearly all the post-9/11 literature like The 9-11 Commission Report or Lawrence Wright’s terrific book The Looming Tower pointed to the bureaucratic wrangling and turf wars that prevented the federal government from preventing the 2001 attacks. In response, Congress created the larger bureaucracy the world has ever seen. The results have been predictable.
Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard Extension School, has called the Department of Homeland Security “a colossal and inefficient boondoggle.” . . .
In a Journal interview, she said cultural problems at DHS are festering because of duplications of missions among agencies within the department, as well as a lack of top-level leadership.
“DHS was put together as one great big organized department, and in fact they’ve became one big disorganized group of stovepipes,” she said . . .
Today, no fewer than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees have some kind of jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security. In 2004, that number was 86, according to a report by the 9/11 Commission.

DHS defenders point out that we haven’t had an attack anywhere near the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks since those attacks themselves. That’s true. We also hadn’t had an attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks prior to those attack themselves.

Part two of Coleman’s series looks at how the growth of DHS has affected Albuquerque specifically.

Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, told the Journal that as Homeland Security’s physical presence in Albuquerque has expanded, the number of agents working the state has grown, too. Abar declined to say how many HSI officers are based in New Mexico, citing security concerns. But the number has “more than quadrupled” in the past three years, he said.
“We’ve up-armored,” Abar said. “That means putting more people and more resources on the ground. When we looked at New Mexico from an agency standpoint, we realized we could do quite a bit of good but we needed to put more resources and more agents on the ground, and over the past three years that’s what we’ve done.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s mission in the state has also grown beyond the narrow counterterrorism and disaster relief mandate outlined in the 2002 federal law that established the department.
Homeland Security Investigations agents are now working with local police all over New Mexico, aiming to become an integral part of domestic crime fighting in the state. HSI officers are deployed in the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, as well as at police departments in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Farmington, Aztec and elsewhere across the state, Abar said.
“We are working side-by-side, literally – we are entrenched with our state and local counterparts,” Abar said.
Abar declined to say whether Homeland Security officers helped Albuquerque police respond to the unruly March 30 public demonstrations protesting the killing of James Boyd, who was shot by Albuquerque police March 16. But Abar confirmed that HSI officers are helping local police investigate gang activity in New Mexico, as well as track missing and exploited children, break up pickpocket rings and even sleuth for stolen and fraudulent Native American art.
“Native American culture is very important here in New Mexico, and we want to preserve that,” Abar said.

So the agency that was created to protected us from catastrophic terrorist attacks is now investigating and arresting American citizens who illegally possess or sell Native American artifacts.

The last part of Coleman’s series looks at an issue regular readers of The Watch will know well by now — the role DHS has played in militarizing America’s police forces.

“There has been a trend of militarization of police agencies across the country, and it’s been stimulated by federal grants to purchase high-level technology and heavy armament that we have never seen before, except in military situations,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union.
“Increasingly, you see APD using SWAT teams with riot gear and full body armor and helmets and assault rifles to perform operations that were traditionally carried out by uniformed policemen,” Simonson said. “The tactics have changed.”
Darren White, who has served as a New Mexico secretary of public safety, Bernalillo County sheriff and chief public safety officer for the city of Albuquerque, told the Journal the Department of Homeland Security has been immensely helpful in equipping state and local law enforcement officers…
The Department of Defense’s military surplus program last year sent the cities of Farmington and Los Lunas mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, from the U.S. military surplus program. The vehicles, which were used in the Iraq War, are valued at more than $600,000 each, but the departments had to pay only the price of shipment – about $3,000 – to acquire them. Their maintenance, which can be substantial, is also the cities’ responsibility.
Farmington Police Cmdr. Cliff Washburn, who oversees the city’s SWAT team, told The Daily Times newspaper in Farmington that the fearsome-looking vehicle was a deterrent in itself and would be deployed at all SWAT team calls in the community.
“It’s foolish to leave an asset at home when you might need it in the field,” Washburn told the Daily Times. “Plus, it’s very intimidating. You roll up in front of somebody’s house with that, and it gets their attention. We’ll take it everywhere we go.” . . .
Tom Ridge, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Journal he is dismayed by state and local law enforcement’s increasing procurement of military-style equipment, paid for with federal dollars. Ridge said that was not the original mission of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created to combat terrorism and respond to disasters.
“I’m trying to figure out why these local communities need Humvees,” Ridge said. “I think it’s ridiculous. The maintenance on a Humvee and some of this other equipment is daunting. They (police departments) could probably use a couple of more patrolmen rather than another military vehicle.

I’d encourage you to read the entire series. It’s really some top-notch, big-picture reporting.