Richard Sudan looks at the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the US, its overreach and its impact on security models. He argues it was never fit for purpose and needs to go.
9/11 and the Climate of Fear
This year will mark the 21st anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks on New York City in the United States. This tragic event which cost the lives of thousands of Americans of all faiths and backgrounds became a seminal event and turning point, not just in American history, but world history.
The single most devastating domestic attack on American soil began a chain of events that continue to shape the world decades later.
And, of course, the attacks gave birth to perhaps the most universally famous political phrase repeated countless times since 2001 as a justification for a catastrophic foreign policy by the United States, Britain and their allies; ‘The War on Terror’.
The climate of fear created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks was palpable. The seemingly impenetrable defences of the world’s most powerful nation had been breached, and with devastating consequences. And it didn’t take long for those fears to be exploited for political expediency.
Indeed, no sooner had the dust begun to settle over New York, where the Twin Towers had once stood, then President George Bush began spinning the ‘us against them’ narrative’. “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists” he famously quipped to an already fearful American and global public. Pick a side. There was no room for serious analysis. No room for nuance. No time for pause, reflection and consideration. No serious forensic look at the available evidence as to who and what entities were behind the attack. Iraq, it was decided, despite no evidence, and with no link to the attacks, needed to be invaded to eliminate its purported weapons of mass destruction, a claim we now know was a complete fabrication.
Politicians are said to ‘never let a crisis go to waste’. The attacks provided the American neocons with a pseudo justification to once more occupy Iraq, and as it would turn out, attempt to begin wars of attrition and conquest against a number of other sovereign nations in the years that followed.
But it wasn’t just Black, Brown and Muslim countries that would feel the brunt of American militarism, fanaticism and exceptionalism in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In addition to the gung-ho rallying of American troops sent abroad to occupy Iraq, in the name of security, naturally, the fortification and shoring up of so-called defense at home also took another turn which would have a direct impact on ordinary American citizens.
The American government needed to be seen to be doing something at home. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center represented an assault on the United States security apparatus and economic base in one sweep.
The imagery of both the Twin Towers and the Pentagon damaged and destroyed created a lasting and searing image in the minds of Americans; two of the most powerful symbols of both the American military and the country’s economic powerbase in New York had been deeply compromised and proven vulnerable. Something would be needed to quell anxieties, in addition to sending soldiers and bombs to other countries, to restore confidence in the American public, that Washington was back in control, and that further attacks like those which took place on September 11, 2001 could never be repeated.
The US administration’s first counter-terrorism measure was the announcement of plans to establish the Department for Homeland Security in October 2001. It was soon followed by the Patriot Act, passed 45 days after the September 11 attacks. It drove a horse and carriage through civil liberties making it easier for the federal government to monitor citizens in the search for domestic threats. In the name of national security officials could gain access to phone and bank records and other personal information without the need for a court-approved warrant.
Creation of a Rogue Organisation?
When former President George Bush announced the creation of the Department for Homeland Security he said the new agency’s primary role was the formation of “one department whose primary mission is to protect the American homeland.”
As we approach the 21-year anniversary of the birth of DHS, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on those two decades, in order to assess how much safer America now is, since the formation of it.
Surely, one of the largest federal agencies, boasting close to a quarter of a million employees, funded to the hilt, would herald nothing but success?
Traditionally in the United States, it was the FBI and CIA which were tasked with US security, providing a bulwark against national security threats from terrorism.
Now, the introduction of the executive body of the DHS sought to complement this work, in theory making the work easier under the umbrella of one department.
Whereas in the past the CIA and FBI might have been at odds, not necessarily known for cooperating with each other, sometimes even at war with each other, something like the DHS, whose sole purpose was security, was thought to make natural sense.
Early warning signs however, were indicative of what would follow in the years which lead us to the present day. Instead of making things operationally easier, critics have argued that the DHS simply created more confusion, unnecessary layers of communication and ultimately, more bureaucracy.
One of the DHS’s first significant tests was its response to hurricane Katrina in 2005. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was the body responsible for dealing with disasters on home turf. It fell under the control of DHS.
But, according to most serious accounts, ultimately, George Bush’s focus on the DHS meant less funding was available for FEMA, and that resources were spread thinner. FEMA’s cutbacks saw the numbers of experienced field operatives deplete. The DHS was new, and although there had been plans and preparations to deal with a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, when the disaster hit it became apparent that the management of the crisis was an unmitigated disaster. Close to 2000 people died from Katrina, but countless papers and studies since have suggested that the human and financial loss incurred could have been reduced.
Poor infrastructure and weakened dam levees in New Orleans were already a disaster waiting to happen, but by all accounts the federal government and George Bush’s DHS had failed miserably in controlling and overseeing the various organizations which stepped in to help those affected by Katrina. There was no oversight, leadership or responsibility, despite the DHS having ultimate control. Watching news items, even from the other side of the world, it was obvious after several days of apparent paralysis from the government, that not only was the DHS failing to manage the crisis, but in actuality, it seemed to be making it worse. Might a sufficiently funded FEMA have done a better job without the DHS in charge? And had DHS’s baptism by fire already proven the department to be problematic to say the least?
To their credit, the Coast Guard, Red Cross local charities and other faith organizations provided support for some of those affected, but the DHS had only exacerbated the suffering according to critics. Part of the criticism was that they took too long to respond, to form a coherent plan and were staffed with too many people who were appointed for political reasons while lacking in experience. This miscalculation and evasion of responsibility cost lives.
And to be clear, the lives that were cost and the lives which were devastated were predominantly African Americans. Thousands of Black people were stranded as a result of the government’s lack of preparedness, many of whom were simply left abandoned and to their own fates. Around 25% of New Orleans residents lived in poverty at the time, and around 85% of that number were Black.
In fact, DHS’s response to the suffering of predominantly Black people in New Orleans was so bad, that rapper Kanye West famously declared that George Bush “doesn’t care about Black people”.
West’s comments echoed how many at the time felt. Poor Black residents from New Orleans spent days packed into the New Orleans Superdrome and the city’s Convention Centre, having travelled there in desperation seeking safety and survival for their families. While they waited to be evacuated, reports of suicides, abuse, a lack of food water and medical supplies took a serious toll on those who had already lost loved ones and/or their homes. Also at the time, state police were drafted in to prevent people from leaving the Superdrome and to control their movement. Hurricane Katrina had exposed the deep social fissures of inequality in America. But rather than helping some of the country’s most vulnerable people in dealing with the impact of a national disaster, the DHS hampered efforts to help them.
Some have suggested in the years following hurricane Katrina that were the racial and social demographics of those affected in the disaster different, the government might have offered a better response to the disaster. The victims of Hurricane Katrina became casualties of systemic white supremacy which failed to protect them. People died because they were poor and Black and living in a dangerous area susceptible to the impacts of natural disaster and because of a system which wilfully failed to ensure residents were protected with proper safety measures. The Bush administration’s DHS had the legal responsibility for rescuing and saving those lives following the impact of the hurricane and it failed in its duty.
Spying on Activists, Immigrants and Black People
Over the years following its creation the DHS has faced some of the most serious accusations regarding the alleged abuse of surveillance powers, and the gathering of personal data and information, that has nothing to do with national security but which might have everything to do with an increasingly authoritarian government keeping tabs on anyone considered to present a threat to its power.
Of course this is nothing new for many communities in America, particularly for Black, and more recently Muslim people, whose political activity has always been monitored by the state.
But an organization like the DHS facing little or no congressional oversight or scrutiny, while able to monitor people on a whim, is a far cry from an organization purported to head up and lead on national security. With no oversight, the DHS is known to have abused its power by monitoring Muslims, Black communities, immigrants, journalists, and even politicians, people accused of no crime. This is why today, many describe the DHS as a rogue entity which must be greatly defunded or disbanded completely.
It’s even been the case, that the DHS deployed predator drones, and airplanes to spy on Black Lives Matter protests.
Officially, the DHS contends that it supports the right of the first amendment which includes the right to assemble and does not allocate resources to monitor planned or spontaneous protests.
It does however, under section 515 of the Homeland Security Act admit to providing “situational awareness” to inform federal, state and local governments about potential threats related to terrorism and disaster related issues.
Many people believe that “situational awareness” is really just a code word for spying, something in which the DHS has been instrumental in relation to Muslim communities. Among the more prominent cases to be deemed violations of the US constitution by the Office of General Counsel at DHS, the organisation’s watchdog, are a marriage counselling seminar put on by a Muslim organisation and a lecture on parenting delivered by a Muslim American speaker.
A programme known as “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), established in 2011 under President Barack Obama and renamed under President Trump, increased counterterrorism surveillance of Muslim Americans by allowing DHS, federal prosecutors, and FBI agents to work closely with local officials to infiltrate Muslim American communities. Like its British counterpart, the programme has been heavily criticised for selectively asking Muslims to take collective responsibility for political violence. It relies on the widely discredited premise that there are identifiable markers or warning signs of radicalisation – behaviours and beliefs – that launch people on an inexorable path to terrorism.
As in the UK spying exercises were dressed up as community outreach, and efforts made to enlist schools, Department of Children and Families, religious leaders, crisis intervention staff, law enforcement and public health officials to report suspect clients. The programme’s focus has always been overwhelmingly on Muslims despite the fact that far right terrorist attacks kill more people in the US than any other movements. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2020 far-right extremists accounted for 16 of 17 extremist killings and 41 of the 42 extremist killings the year before. Between 2009 and 2018 the far right was responsible for 73% of extremist-related fatalities.
Furthermore, according to a report published by the Senate in 2012, the DHS’s fusion centres, gathering information on Muslim communities, while presented as outreach, have in reality produced very few outcomes actually useful to counter terrorism. Such programs are viewed as a significant waste of resources, singling out and alienating Muslims, while diverting focus from very real internal threats to national security.
Failing to Tackle Home Grown Terror
Post September 11, 2001, when the DHS first came into being, the biggest threat posed to national security was believed to be from foreign terrorists. In fact, it can be argued that the focus on Muslims has blindsided the agency to the far more real threat of home-grown white terror.
Twenty years on, the battleground has now shifted significantly. In 2021, FBI director Christopher Wray acknowledged that home-grown white supremacist terror was the greatest internal threat to the security of the United States, accounting for the lion’s share of the FBI’s resources. Just as in the UK, in the United States white supremacy is also the fastest growing form of terrorism.
We’ve seen the ramifications of systemic white supremacy in the United States manifested in disproportionately high numbers of state killings, arrests and incarcerations of Black people at the hands of the police. We’ve seen the steady rise of various white supremacist anti-government militia groups in the country, many of whom descended on the nation’s capital on Jan 6, 2021. We even heard Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, describe the events as an act of domestic terror.
Why then, has the DHS failed in preventing the rise of such groups, and failed to work with other federal and state agencies to prevent them carrying out acts of violence against Black and non-white people, as well as breaching the country’s congressional buildings? Surely the ultimate litmus test for the DHS, is in protecting its own taxpaying citizens against white supremacist terror and protecting its own government’s buildings.
Another answer might lie in the reason that the police often fail to prevent white supremacist violence. Aside from structural racism in the legal system which seldom punishes those police, many among the police themselves are often connected and affiliated with white supremacists. Similarly, the DHS and departments which fall under it, have themselves faced questions about those among its ranks who might share racist white supremacist ideological thinking.
Racist Border Controls
The ethics and practices of the United States border officials were thrown into sharp focus during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s dog-whistle politics and derogatory commentary about Muslims and migrants became a political norm, and his pledge to build a wall to barricade against the supposed existential threat to America from without fanned the flames of racial bigotry.
But the truth is that the border policies of the United States have always favoured immigrants classified as white, while being hostile to people of colour.
The US’s customs and border officials and agencies tasked with securing the border are part of the DHS. Ironically, and maybe bitterly so, the current Secretary for Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas is the son of immigrants who fled Cuba and settled in the United States. Mayorkas’ border officials, have presided over some of the most horrendous scenes of brutality and treatment of countless migrants and potential asylum seekers, seeking the safety of the US border and shores.
The barbaric and allegedly unconstitutional acts of border officials treating migrant men, women and children as less than human, has been well documented. There have been many accusations of abuse at many of the migrant detention centres in which migrants were held.
And it’s the DHS which is responsible for repelling and turning away many at the border, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, exploiting Title 42 and Trump’s use of public health regulations, to see migrants deported before they can be legally processed to determine their status, citing disease and national security as a justification. The legality and constitutionality of this has been challenged but remains in operation under the DHS.
Perhaps one of the most grotesque and egregious examples of the DHS and its border officials abusing their power happened fairly recently when thousands of Haitian migrants amassed at the southern city of Del Rio, having crossed from Mexico. Images were shared around the world showing white border agents riding horses and whipping Black Haitians to deter them from crossing. The recent natural disaster in Haiti, and the political turmoil created by the assassination of the Haitian president did not matter enough to either Trump or Biden to lead them to relax the border controls.
So bad is the repression at the border that human rights groups around the world and the United Nations have expressed concern.
Migrants fleeing war, chaos and poverty do not present a threat to national security. The racist clampdown on non-white people seeking the safety of a country which gains its privilege often by exploiting the homelands of those to whom it denies entry is part of the American story and social fabric.
DHS border officials have become little more than the thugs and foot soldiers acting on behalf of America’s unfounded border fears and hysteria.
The warning signs were there and have been building. In 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents, which are controlled by the DHS, essentially conducted a sting on Portland. Camouflage and unidentified officers were snatching protestors and bundling them into vans, arresting them miles away from any border without any explanation and apparently without them having committed any crimes. The CPB were also accused of firing tear gas at unarmed protestors alongside a long litany of accusations of systemic corruption.
With the DHS spying, monitoring and arresting people with no justification and oversight, the warnings about authoritarianism have now shifted to the grim reality of it having already taken root.
Since the formation of the DHS, it has morphed entirely from what it was purportedly meant to be. Its ineffectiveness in tackling national security is proven. It has become a vehicle for exploitation and is now little more than an overfunded tool of state oppression.
Some might say that the DHS’ and border officials’ disregard of freedom and targeting of non-white communities is an extension of American foreign policy. In an increasingly small and interconnected world, the distinction between neocon domestic and foreign policy is proving increasingly blurred.
No More Secret Police
The charges and accusations which the Department of Homeland Security stand accused of are serious and its rap sheet is long.
It is a failure of another era and a rogue organization which needs to be reined in.
It operates as little more than secret unaccountable police, unconstitutionally operating with impunity for whichever ends it chooses, consistently funded regardless of changing presidents. In 2022 it is the antithesis of freedom, fairness and democracy. If the DHS were formed to prevent terror 20 years ago, in 2022 it resembles more closely that which it claims to oppose than some might care to admit, however uncomfortable the truth might be.
Richard Sudan is a journalist, writer and TV reporter and has reported from around the world. His writing has appeared in the Independent, Guardian and other publications. His focus is on a range of issues including racism, police brutality, immigration and global injustice. He has been a guest speaker at venues as diverse as Oxford University and the People’s Assembly as well as appearing regularly in the media. He has also taught writing poetry for performance course at Brunel University alongside Professor Benjamin Zephaniah. In 2018 Richard was aboard the Freedom Flotilla, aiming to deliver aid to Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip. Twitter: @RichardSudan