The Department of Homeland Security recently made public a January internal review of its open source intelligence work in Portland, Oregon, during the summer of 2020. The report might be the most damning review of government work in memory.
Just the document’s subheads alone suggest massive, systemic dysfunction: It was “unprepared for the mission assigned”; a lack of training “crippled its workforce” and “engendered poor performance”; pressure to report threats “induced improper collection and dissemination”; and the effort to send its employees to Oregon was “poorly planned and executed.” DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis shop even drafted research on journalists engaged in “ordinary journalism” covering the violence in Portland and then somehow their names were leaked publicly.
This comes right on the heels of the news that the DHS operations center sent a note to the Army in the midst of the Jan. 6 riot that there were “no major incidents of illegal activity at this time.” This was 30 minutes after insurrectionists broke through police barricades around the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Poetically, the Portland internal review was published at DHS on that very same day. It’s worth focusing more on Portland, though, to get a full picture of how broken the DHS intelligence apparatus that failed on Jan. 6 actually is.
There have been long-held concerns that DHS’s intelligence shop would morph into a secret police–like organization under the right circumstances. But secret police groups in repressive societies tend to be staffed with experienced people and organized in a competent manner. Regimes like having effective security apparatuses to crack heads and collect intelligence.
The Portland review suggests quite the opposite: that DHS’s ability to provide intelligence to policymakers, including to its own senior people, is broken—or never worked in the first place. Reading the report, it’s almost impossible not to reach the conclusion that it would be better to shutter the intelligence agency completely than to continue to run an intelligence shop that cannot fulfill basic competencies for America’s decision-makers.
I&A, as it’s known, is enshrined in law, set up to both gather and analyze threats to critical infrastructure. It also functions as a catchall for DHS’s intelligence topics, such as cybersecurity, U.S. border security, and domestic crime. It also works as one of the pathways for the federal government to work with state and local entities as well as the private sector. These are important, if overlapping, missions with other government organizations.
The report nonetheless shreds DHS for its inability to fulfill its basic mission requirements. It says the organization, when faced with increasing violence in Portland following the murder of George Floyd, sent “untrained, inexperienced” collectors to Oregon. They had little to no training but were “immediately activated to assist in any capacity possible.” Indeed, some I&A employees received no training whatsoever on collecting and analyzing intelligence, open-source or otherwise. One junior employee was quoted saying, “It’s overwhelming to sit by yourself and self-teach.”
This meant that the majority of DHS employees sent to Portland were new hires, trained by “equally inexperienced collectors.” This included a lack of basic “intelligence oversight” training—critical for employees of a domestic-focused agency to know basic rights and individual privacy protections of U.S. citizens. Someone in DHS asked its own intelligence organization to reduce this to a 30-minute, online-only course. It’s unclear if the Portland group even received this clearly insufficient level of training.
How junior were these DHS employees? The report notes that multiple personnel were at the GS-7 level—in other words, the greenest, least experienced members of the staff. To put this in perspective, this is what some other places in the federal government pay their interns. The report notes that the office was “unable to identify an experienced collector who would be willing and able to go to Portland.”
The report also said comments in the media that called I&A the “junior varsity” of the intelligence community created a “significant morale issue” for employees. But this characterization might be unfair to high school junior varsity athletes, since at least those ninth and 10th graders receive coaching and practice prior to playing against other teenagers. What’s more, the office’s own employees in 2020 ranked it 397 out of 411 places in the U.S. government to work, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
When these DHS employees returned to Washington, they were met with “perceived indifference” from their superiors for their work. “After we returned,” one mentioned, “there was no mention that we were back or the work they did. There was no talk about Portland at all. Everyone just kind of acted like nothing happened.” DHS obviously hung its own novice intelligence analysts and collectors out to dry.
It’s obvious the junior DHS employees sent to Portland are not to blame for the organization’s failings. The more experienced DHS employees may have known that this was going to be a disaster—one slightly more experienced officer remarked I&A was setting itself up for failure—and wisely did not volunteer for this mission.
There is certainly a need to know what’s going on at the federal level about activities within our borders. Terrorism, homegrown extremists, white nationalism, malign online influence campaigns, election interference, and many other challenges menace America. DHS identified many of these dangers in its last Homeland Threat Assessment last October. Trump’s (unlawfully appointed) acting DHS secretary at the time, Chad Wolf, indicated in that document that “I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”
But if the organization cannot muster the basic competencies to fulfill its mission of protecting this country from these threats and more, it needs to be stripped down to brass tacks and rebuilt—or be cut loose. Congress needs to fix a gimlet eye to this obvious problem—before we deal with another Jan. 6–style assault on our democracy and DHS once again shows itself to be unprepared.