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A Department of Homeland Security Overhaul Is Long Overdue

Given DHS’s broad powers, they ought to be subject to robust oversight. Our examination shows this is not the case.

This article was origin­ally published by The Hill

Created 20 years ago in the wake of 9/11 to prevent terror­ist attacks on U.S. soil, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity (DHS) has become notori­ous for abuse. DHS’s inhu­mane enforce­ment of immig­ra­tion laws has deservedly garnered the bulk of Congres­sional and public atten­tion, but its coun­terter­ror­ism and intel­li­gence efforts also need reform and over­sight.

Time and again these programs have targeted people of color and protest­ers, while ignor­ing the obvi­ous threat of white suprem­acist viol­ence.

While DHS Secret­ary Alejandro Mayor­kas has lately direc­ted his staff to reori­ent to combatting “domestic terror­ism,” a system with such a record of blatant bias and over­reach requires revamp­ing. If anything, by expand­ing the depart­ment’s reach into Amer­ic­ans’ lives and data, the pivot to domestic terror­ism makes this need even more obvi­ous and urgent.

DHS’s Office of Intel­li­gence and Analysis is a top prior­ity for an over­haul. This office is charged with dissem­in­at­ing terror­ism intel­li­gence and analysis to state and local law enforce­ment and other part­ners. It is well known that during the 2020 protests in Port­land follow­ing the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the office used author­it­ies meant to address terror­ism to “counter poten­tial threats of graf­fiti, vandal­ism, or other minor damage.” But as docu­mented by the agency’s general coun­sel, the rot went even deeper. For example, one of its senior offi­cials pres­sured analysts to describe threats as “inspired” by “viol­ent antifa anarch­ists,” despite the absence of any evid­ence.

March 2022 report by DHS’s inspector general found that the office issued 366 open-source intel­li­gence reports during the 2020 protests — but it was silent in the weeks lead­ing up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, despite seeing calls to action by groups with a known history of viol­ence, such as the Proud Boys. It is diffi­cult to avoid the conclu­sion that the race and polit­ical lean­ings of those plan­ning the gath­er­ings played a role — and that this bias had devast­at­ing consequences.

And it is clear that DHS’s intel­li­gence arm needs strong safe­guards to prevent a recur­rence.

The Office of Intel­li­gence and Analysis also supports “fusion centers,” state-run inform­a­tion shar­ing hubs that receive federal fund­ing. Some have followed a similar traject­ory: dissem­in­at­ing unre­li­able inform­a­tion about supposed secur­ity threats and surveilling social justice protest­ers, includ­ing Black Lives Matter and Muslim activ­ists. These fail­ures echo decade-old find­ings from a bipar­tisan Senate invest­ig­a­tion that conclude fusion centers were gath­er­ing inform­a­tion on consti­tu­tion­ally protec­ted activ­ity and “yield[ing] little, if any, bene­fit to federal coun­terter­ror­ism intel­li­gence efforts.”

Even apart from these excesses, the depart­ment’s activ­it­ies touch the lives of millions of Amer­ic­ans — mainly through its track­ing of trav­el­ers, both domestic and inter­na­tional, and its purchases of data about what people do and say online. DHS has used this inform­a­tion to build the nation’s largest govern­mental store of Amer­ic­ans’ inform­a­tion, cover­ing hundreds of millions of people. This cache of inform­a­tion can reveal details of our lives that we would rather keep private and is suscept­ible to misuse, avail­able to be exploited against polit­ical enemies and social move­ments. Its very exist­ence impinges on our privacy. Even former high-level DHS offi­cials describe this accu­mu­la­tion of records as posing acute civil liber­ties concerns.

Given DHS’s formid­able powers, it ought to be subject to robust over­sight. But this has been sorely lack­ing. Our exam­in­a­tion of the internal offices charged with poli­cing DHS programs and policies found that these offices are under­cut by struc­tural weak­nesses, lack of support from DHS lead­er­ship, and at times their own timid­ity. Too often they are brushed off by the very play­ers they are supposed to over­see.

Nor is it at all clear that DHS’s coun­terter­ror­ism programs have actu­ally contrib­uted to keep­ing Amer­ic­ans safer. Instead, the depart­ment has routinely been cited by its own inspector general for rolling out initi­at­ives without even both­er­ing to test them for effect­ive­ness.

Secret­ary Mayor­kas must over­haul the depart­ment’s approach to coun­terter­ror­ism, putting trans­par­ency and the protec­tion of civil rights and civil liber­ties at the center of its efforts.

Over the last two decades, DHS has need­lessly targeted social move­ments and minor­ity communit­ies in the name of coun­terter­ror­ism, while turn­ing a blind eye to the crimes of white suprem­acists. It’s past time to fix the systems that allowed this to happen.