I was honored to be named by President Barack Obama as the third secretary of Homeland Security, and I am deeply saddened to see the DHS I once led turn against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights, first in Portland and now in other cities. This is not why DHS was created, it is not what it is supposed to do, and I’m confident that most DHS officers who have been directed to run patrols against U.S. citizens are troubled by this operation. DHS has a broad and important public safety mission, but nowhere in its foundational documents, in law or in policy, is the department authorized to target the American people who have assembled to protest the actions of their government.
Calls to abolish DHS, the largest law enforcement organization in the world and the third-largest Cabinet-level department in the executive branch, are not new, and it’s not surprising that they’ve increased and now include some current and former members of Congress and former White House officials.
But dismantling DHS is not the answer. Restoring it to its proper mission, and introducing new safeguards against its egregious misuse, is the appropriate response to its unchecked authoritarian deployment. Private industry is constantly evolving and updating itself based on market requirements, and the government — at every level — should be willing to do the same, starting with a demand to change the leadership that got us here.
DHS was founded in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to protect our nation against any number of hazards and threats. It defends against terrorism, cyberattacks, threats to U.S. borders, waterways, public infrastructure and aviation systems, and helps the country prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters while providing support, capacity, capability and intelligence to state and local officials. Since 9/11, zero planes have been weaponized as instruments of terrorism. The public may not love having toothpaste confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration, but TSA has done what it was created to do in a zero-fail context under DHS. The safety of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump has not been compromised — because the Secret Service is doing its job. The security of our ports of entry, waterways and borders is strong, with no credit due to a wall but all of it to the men and women of CBP, the Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And after Hurricane Katrina, a low point for the department, but before Trump was in office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ably responded to disasters while U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomed new entrants to the nation efficiently and effectively.
What is unique about DHS is that its success is measured by what it prevents, by what it mitigates and by what does not happen. DHS was designed to focus on the nexus between threats and vulnerabilities to the homeland, to share that information across government and to mitigate those threats. Every day that a terrorist fails to attack our country, our borders are not penetrated, or threat information is shared between DHS and its state and local partners to prevent a harm from occurring is a day that DHS has been successful. Every day that harm is not befalling the nation is a day DHS has done its job. Indeed, when DHS is not in the news, it is effective, because it is protecting the country from a calamity before it is realized. Under two presidents and across four Senate-confirmed secretaries of Homeland Security, DHS was out of the news cycle considerably more than it was in it, and was therefore generally successful.
That relative success stands in stark contrast to what we see in Trump’s DHS. It is now an agency that leads the news not because of the harm it is preventing but because of the harm it is doing. Putting children in cages at the border is not a success, it is a failure. Attempting to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was not only wrong, it was found to be arbitrary and capricious recently by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case I brought against the department I used to lead. Doing far too little to support Puerto Rico in its hurricane response was a failure. Closing down our lawful immigration system for no apparent reason is not sensible, and it deprives our nation of the best and brightest from abroad. And what we are seeing in Portland and other cities is just another example of failed leadership by people who are neither qualified to lead the agency nor, for the most part, confirmed to run it by the Senate.
While I favor neither defunding the police nor eliminating DHS, it’s all too clear that the pillars of the U.S. government have been compromised, and it’s time for lawmakers to step in and introduce some checks. An assumption baked into the notion of governing this nation is rooted in its constitutional principles. When these principles break down, as they have under the Trump administration, it is easy to blame the system. But it isn’t a system that has deployed federal law enforcement to our nation’s cities to quell the exercise of protected speech and assembly; it is people within the system who are misusing their power, breaking the rules and upending fundamental tenants of governance.
The problems we see today at DHS are not inherent to the agency. They are the trappings of failed leadership. For every federal agent deployed to Portland, we are missing one at the border, at a port of entry, on the nation’s coastal waterways or in an airport. Dousing crowds of protesters with waves of tear gas, shooting them with rubber bullets and wading into a protest to grab an American exercising his freedom to assemble is not what DHS officers are trained for. On the contrary, they are specifically trained to respect freedom of expression and assembly. State and local police are responsible for crowd control in their own communities. They will, from time to time, request the assistance of DHS, but that is a decision made by governors and mayors, not the secretary of Homeland Security. As a former governor and attorney general of Arizona, I can tell you just how important it is to leave local policing to state and city officials, who know best the tempo of their own communities. The sudden appearance of armed DHS officers clad in battle gear in Portland, for example, served only to exacerbate local protest activity, which already had been quieting down. The administration stoked the fire and then said it alone possessed the fire extinguisher. Such unilateral activity by the federal government should not be accepted.
Presently there is a complete dearth of Senate-confirmed leadership in the department. There is no real secretary, no confirmed deputy secretary, and the department’s components are staffed with acting officials. The same goes for countless other roles across DHS. Moreover, the people currently serving in acting capacities lack the requisite background and experience to perform in the positions they hold.
Congress has a crucial role to play here. It can demand that qualified leaders be recruited and appointed and it can tighten the rules about how long an acting official can serve in a role. It can also curb the department when it strays from its mission as extremely as it has during the Trump administration. Congress can and should withhold funding from DHS when it deploys resources inconsistent with the congressional authorizing language it must follow. Congress has an obligation to the American people to hold federal agencies accountable for their actions. They should exercise that authority promptly.
Across two different administrations of differing parties — Bush’s Republican one and Obama’s Democratic one — DHS was professionally run; it was not a political operation. While there were significant policy distinctions between the DHS I oversaw and the one managed by Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff under Bush, there was a common guiding principle of strict nonpartisanship and functionality: We were there solely for the purpose of protecting the American people. Not to attack them.