The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barbara Boxer: DHS was a mistake. I regret voting for it.

I never imagined a president like Trump when I voted to create the Department of Homeland Security.

A protective vest with identifying markings worn by Border Patrol is seen during a news conference on the actions taken by Border Patrol and Homeland Security agents in Portland, Ore. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Here are the three words that no elected official, serving or retired, wants to say: “I was wrong.”

Throughout my career, I was known for taking some very lonely votes. But I made a mistake in 2002 when I voted to create the Department of Homeland Security, which had been recommended by a number of members of Congress in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 the year before.

Looking back in the congressional record, I could hear the doubts in my voice.

“I have tremendous misgivings about the size and shape of this department,” I said. I warned that people could be “less accountable, hiding under layers of bureaucracy.” I worried out loud on the Senate floor about including FEMA, the Coast Guard and immigration agencies into one giant department.

The federal police in Portland don’t even understand what ‘arrests’ are

Still, most people thought this was a good idea. The memory of 9/11 haunted me: The hijacked airplanes were headed to California, which I represented, and I’d lost constituents in the attack. The World Trade Center collapsed in the city where I was born.

That was enough to get my yes vote.

Here’s where I went wrong: I never imagined that a president would use unconfirmed puppets like acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, to terrorize our own citizens in our own country. Our goal then had been to protect our own people, not hurt them, not harm them, not hunt them down on the streets of Portland or any other city. There was no protection built into this bill to stop a power-hungry president from misusing a powerful federal police force, hidden in disparate agencies, controlled by one agency head — the thought never even occurred to me.

Former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff says the Trump administration's response to the Portland protests has created needless chaos. (Video: The Washington Post)

I also never imagined a president appointing a lobbyist who was not even confirmed by the U.S. Senate to head such a department. I never imagined a president cruel enough to initiate a child separation policy and put helpless children behind wire while their crying parents had no power to fight for their children.

President George W. Bush, who signed the reorganization, picked a talented, caring former congressman and governor, Tom Ridge, to head the department, followed by Michael Chertoff. President Barack Obama named competent leaders like Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson.

Trump, by contrast, has little regard for the letter of the law or executive restraint. He yowls about “law and order” while commuting the sentences of men like Roger Stone who lie and cheat and protect Trump’s transgressions. His appointments for Homeland Security behave the same way.

The people protesting police brutality of African Americans are overwhelmingly peaceful. But even if they got out of hand, local law-enforcement agencies have the capacity to deal with it. If any governor needs help from the federal government, he or she can ask. But no federal agency should be roaming the streets of America in unmarked vehicles and unmarked uniforms, arresting people exercising their constitutional right to free speech. That's called kidnapping, and it’s what dictatorships do.

We’re police officers. You should know our names. That goes for Portland, too.

When we debated the DHS bill, I sided with 27 other senators on an amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to delay the merger of the 22 organizations included in the department for three years and set up checks and balances as well as robust congressional oversight. We lost that fight, but I won two other amendments: one strengthening the Federal Air Marshals’ Service to protect long-haul flights and another that allowed trained pilots to defend the cockpit and the passengers.

But I voted for the final, imperfect, vulnerable product, and I admit my mistake. I never thought that the Department of Homeland Security would be used against our own people. I never envisioned a dictatorial president, a tyrannical president, a desperate president. I was myopic.

When we write laws, we must think harder about how they might be misused. I can’t get my vote back, but Congress can act to both condemn this gross tyranny and then restructure the department so that no president, now or ever again, can have a private police force and menace the people he or she swears to protect.

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police and vigilantes are part of bigger injustices felt by these black Americans. (Video: The Washington Post)