How DHS Got This Way

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S1: There’s this video that came out of Portland the other night, just a 45 second snippet of the protests happening there. I’ve been watching it again and again. In it you see these federal agents, the ones that have been dispatched to guard a courthouse downtown. They surround him and get him on the ground, force him to lie down, and then these clouds of tear gas roll in, obscuring the shot. You can see legs, flashlights, people in uniform, and then you hear the man scream. Oh, I have that. To me, this video, it’s a crystallization of the kinds of tactics the government has been using in this second wave of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, overwhelming force, sure, but also obfuscation. The officers here, reportedly from the Department of Homeland Security are faceless, nameless, retreating and reappearing inside a kind of mist.

S2: Yeah, I mean, there is very little on a good day. DHS operates with very little transparency.

S1: Jonathan Blitzer covers Homeland Security for The New Yorker. He’s seen officers like this working along the border, but not in urban centers over the years. He’s gotten used to thinking of the Department of Homeland Security as an agency that operates under a shadow of the present circumstances are about as sort of scary, embracing it as it gets.

S2: But DHS has generally felt really very little, little need or obligation to report its activities to the general public and certainly to open up itself to scrutiny from journalists.

S1: This makes talking about what’s happening in Portland difficult. Some journalists have called the people gathering outside the courthouse, agents or officers. Others call them troops, raising this question of whether we’re at war and if so, with whom.

S2: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to refer to some of these groups as paramilitary forces. I mean, that is written into the job description. It’s just that job description generally is less jarring to people when those agents are doing paramilitary activities along the border, when they’re ferreting out members of a of a cross-border drug cartel.

S1: Did you ever think that your beat would come to include these agents being on the streets of a city like Portland?

S3: My honest answer is no, the officials I’ve spoken to over the years all expected the president to ramp up DHS activity in the lead up to the elections, but I didn’t expect it to be this egregious this soon. And I think that the wiser answer is for me to say that the activity you’re seeing now on the streets of Portland is in many ways written into the DNA of the Department of Homeland Security. And so what we’re seeing now arguably was only a matter of time. It was only a question of discretion and good judgment that kept previous administrations from deploying department employees in the way that the Trump administration has. Today on the show, the inevitability of what’s happening in Portland, the Department of Homeland Security was built to protect the country from terrorists, but its mission was always expansive. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S4: Over the last sort of week or two as. Individual stories and narratives bubble up about the Department of Homeland Security, as we’ve sort of seen what’s happening in Portland and the response from people there. One stood out to me and it was this op ed from the former senator, Barbara Boxer, in The Washington Post. And she was writing about the Department of Homeland Security, which she voted in favor of establishing. She says, I regret voting for DHS. It stood out to me because, first of all, it puts in context how young the agency is, but also this sense from someone in power that I should have known better. And I kind of wonder, were there people early on saying we should have known like like, hey, this is a problem and here’s why.

S2: I don’t think there were many skeptics out there. A lot of what the Department of Homeland Security does now, it did in different forms. The government did in different forms before the problem was prior to 9/11. A lot of these different sub agencies now that make up the Department of Homeland Security operate it independently. And so after 9/11, there was this broad sense that, OK, we need to consolidate our national security infrastructure. There can’t be miscommunication between different law enforcement agencies. We need to really centralize our operations and we need to be, on the whole, much more nimble and being able to respond to threats to the homeland.

S4: And I have to say, when you say that out loud, that sounds completely logical. Like that makes sense. Like, OK, I’ll co-sign.

S2: Yeah, I think that at the time, I mean, granted, that was a crazy time and there was the beginning of the war in Iraq. Still, the political discourse had just completely been upended by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But I think on the whole, the idea of creating a centralized department for all this made intuitive sense to people. The wild card was going to be in the details and in the authority that this department could end up invoking to do its work.

S4: When you say that what’s happening now is kind of written into the DNA of the organization, what do you mean by that?

S2: The thing that the Department of Homeland Security really did that was that was so novel and so dangerous was it it combined all of the resources of immigration enforcement, it expanded them. It beef them up and it broadened the authority of the government to do these types of enforcement things, all under the pretense of national security. And so you had kind of the marriage of immigration enforcement and national security. I mean, the kind of war on terror, the rhetoric around national security that that grew out of 9/11, that was a time that really, I think, empowered law enforcement to take liberties that I think we can all agree now were quite problematic. But at the time, given what the the apparent threat seemed to be to the country, that was a pretext that neither Democrats nor Republicans felt comfortable questioning. And so now over the years, what you see is every year the Department of Homeland Security’s budget essentially gets bigger. For me, as someone who’s studying more of the immigration enforcement side of the equation at DHS, one of the most striking things was to see how in the early days of the creation of the department, the agencies tasked with enforcing immigration law. So Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, they every year asked for more money and were given a lot more money in a kind of weird feedback loop, started to take root in which it didn’t matter how much these agents did in the course of their work, there was always more to be done and Congress was always only too eager to give them the resources to do it.

S4: When you say that they kept getting more money, like how much money compare the budget to like the FBI, for instance, to take a snapshot.

S2: Now, DHS has twenty two agencies, but the three agencies inside DHS that take up 40 percent of its budget are its Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, its Customs and Border Protection CBP. And then it’s this sort of esoteric sounding organization that basically supplies biometric information to the two other agencies as part of its enforcement remit. You’re looking at twenty six billion dollars a year, and that is a larger sum than every other federal law enforcement body in the United States combined. That is bigger than the FBI budget, the US Marshals budget, the DEA budget, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms budget, all of those rolled together, still smaller than three agencies that make up a fraction of the Department of Homeland Security.

S4: Huh. Wow. I don’t I don’t feel like I understood that before I saw you write about it. Just how much money was going to this one agency?

S2: Well, I think I think one reason why on the whole, smart people who are following the news didn’t see this coming or developing over the years is because for the most part, these agencies under DHS are are policing and cracking down on immigrants and generally people at the border. And so it is not something that is in plain view for most Americans. And one of the reasons why I say what we’re seeing now on the streets of Portland is written into the DNA of the department. Is that a lot of the tactics that are so shocking to us to see so clearly on the streets of American cities when citizens are protesting, for the most part peaceably, is that this is how DHS has operated on the margins when policing immigrants and when policing the border for decades.

S5: And because there has been so little oversight and accountability, there’s there’s really never been a kind of broad reckoning with what it is that DHS does. In the early days of the creation of DHS, there were bodies, teams at ICE that were created and tasked with arresting undocumented immigrants and those teams were literally called fugitive operations or Fuge ops, as they were called in the department, which already has a certain military ring to it.

S2: And the initial idea of fugitive operations was that they were going to go after people living in the US who were undocumented but who had committed criminal offenses. At the start of the early the early years of the creation of DHS, you had the majority of arrests made by fugitive operations B of people who fit that criteria. But over time, as these fugitive operations teams got more and more money from Congress, leaders at the department realized the only way we can justify to Congress asking for and getting more money is to basically give them further proof of all it is that we’re doing. And so it starts to happen in like 2006, 2007, is that these fugitive operations teams are basically tasked with making a certain number of arrests each year so they get quotas that they have to fulfill. And now that they have to make this number of arrests to justify continued funding from Congress, the proportion of people that arresting who have committed crimes in the past starts to go down. And increasingly, what you see over this time is fugitive operations, arresting people who don’t have criminal records. And so it’s that kind of mission creep that you could certainly see coming, but which was kind of smothered in the politics of the moment and as a result, never really checked. And now you fast forward a few decades and you’re seeing it kind of nakedly on the streets of an American city.

S4: You’ve done some reporting on how we got to where we are right now with these DHS folks on the ground in Portland. Can you just reconstruct that a little bit for me? Like I mean, it sounds like Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, said, please don’t send people. And then the head of the DHS said, I’m going to send people.

S2: Anyway, the story of DHS over the last four years is a story of a relatively young department that has massive and unprecedented resources increasingly coming under the thumb of the president’s political agenda. And in the past, you’ve had DHS heads. Obviously, we’ve been appointed by partisan presidents, but who did feel whether they were appointed by Republican or Democratic presidents, a certain sense of fealty to the institution and to the independence of the institution of the Department of Homeland Security. But what the Trump administration has been all about from day one has been to force the department to do exactly what the president wants and needs from a political perspective, and that goes from demonizing immigrants, enforcing immigration laws in needlessly aggressive ways to over time, doing increasingly inhumane things, separating families, things like this. What you’re seeing now, kind of just wholesale policing of American cities. And I think for the most part, every time there has been ahead of the department, there has been there has been some measure of pushback from inside the department against the sort of most over-the-top partisan directives from the White House. But over time, the people who would push back have either been forced out, they’ve resigned, they’ve been fired. And what you have now is really I can’t overstate this. You have the dregs.

S4: That’s harsh language for someone who’s going to want to get an interview with these folks.

S2: I really think at a certain point we just it’s just sort of time to call it like it is. I mean, the guys now who are in charge that the current acting head of the department, this guy, Chad Wolf, first of all, technically isn’t even authorized to be exercising his authority right now because he’s only acting in the role, meaning he hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.

S6: And there’s a there’s a law on the books which basically says someone can only serve in an acting role in government for two hundred, ten days. How long is Chad Wolf been serving?

S2: He took over in November of twenty nineteen. So we’re we’re well north of two hundred, ten days. But what it also means is that he’s unconfirmed. Some of his top deputies are unconfirmed. All of the leadership of the department right now is all unconfirmed or unconfirmed political appointees who have sworn fealty to the White House. And so you have no one really any position in leadership inside the department who’s exercising any sense of independence when it comes time to carry out these directives from the White House. And I think for people who used to serve in the department, it’s really worrisome.

S4: It’s funny to look back because I feel like. Year and change ago, some congresspeople, very progressive congresspeople, were embracing the idea of abolishing ice and it seemed like this kind of wild idea at the time, I guess I wonder if you ever expected to be writing the kind of articles you’re writing now where you’re talking about not just abolish ICE, but like maybe we need to reconsider the whole agency that ICE is a part of.

S2: You know, it’s funny, when the ICE stuff first started, I as a reporter covering some of these issues, I was wary of it. I was very wary of kind of wading into that very, very politicized debate. It’s probably unrealistic to attempt to abolish ICE. What is realistic is coming up with mechanisms inside ice to temper how ICE agents and officers do their jobs, whether that means curbing some of the funding that’s used on enforcement or detention space, whether that means creating priorities like the priorities we saw at the end of the Obama era that the Trump administration gutted whatever the case may be in order to sell anything on a policy level to the rank and file inside these agencies, you can’t antagonize them unnecessarily. The thing for me that really changed my own thinking about how to cover it is the fact that really right now the strongest argument for some sort of reform inside DHS is not coming from progressive activists. It’s not coming from Democratic Congress people. It’s coming from the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security. That, to me, was the line that has been crossed recently, that when you have right now people running the department without any sense of scruples about what it means for them to run the department the way they are, then I actually think it’s fair to start questioning the broader ethos and structure of the department that they’re running. And really, at times, I have to say the idea that DHS would go into Portland in the way that it has in the midst of an unprecedented national conversation about the need to reevaluate police force, really makes you think that to a certain degree, whether consciously or unconsciously, it really seems like DHS wants to be a part of the conversation in which Americans are questioning police force and the need to fund police force.

S7: Jonathan Blitzer, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer over at The New Yorker. His most recent article is entitled Is It Time to Defund the Department of Homeland Security? And that’s the show What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson with help from Daniel Evers’. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. A quick note about the shows. The past few Fridays you might have been hearing Henry Garba hosting What Next TBD. He is doing a whole series on the future of the city and he’s talking about everything he’s done episodes on people leaving cities because the pandemic on cities running out of money on whether the current health crisis is going to change New Orleans forever. You should really check them out, go binge them like right now. Look for what, next Tuesday? Every Friday. OK, that’s everything. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back in the FT tomorrow.