Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Congress passed legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its mission was simple to protect the United States from any future terrorist attacks.
It now employs over 240,000 people to carry out five core security missions. Number one is to prevent terrorism and enhance security. This is closely followed by managing US borders and administering immigration law to safeguarding cyber space and ensuring resilience to natural disasters. The Department of Homeland Security has become the third largest Federal department bringing together 22 different Federal agencies and has a huge billion dollar budget.
Recent events have cast shadows over the Department of Homeland Security and suggest that the third largest Federal department is not fit for purpose. One large shadow over the DHS is the damning report issued by Senator Tom Coburn in December 2012 Safety At Any Price Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in US Cities. Dr. Coburnconducted a year long investigation into how the DHS spends its billion dollar budget. It is a devastating indictment of the organisation’s leadership.
The 55 page report issued by Senator Coburn goes into forensic detail of how the DHS has spent over $35 billion of tax payer’s money over the last ten years. His report pulls no punches. In his introduction Senator Coburn informs the tax payer:
”This report, Safety at Any Price, exposes misguided and wasteful spending in one of the largest terror-prevention grant programs at the Department of Homeland Security – the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). Significant evidence suggests that the program is struggling to demonstrate how it is making U.S. cities less vulnerable to attack and more prepared if one were to occur…We similarly cannot mortgage our children and grand children’s future by funding unnecessary and ineffective programs, even including those that have important missions.”
Shortly after the DHS was created its first secretary Tom Ridge gave a summary of the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program which is DHS’s second largest preparedness grant program. He emphasized that the importance of securing cities as part of a larger plan for securing America from terrorist attack:
”We know that to defend the homeland, we must start by defending the home town. We must defend our cities across America. And the mission, the purpose of the Urban Areas Security Initiative is to build a sustainable and measurable increase in the capability of these critical urban areas so we can defend them.”
The USAI programme has rapidly grown since its inception to 64 funded urban areas by 2010. Secretary Ridge noted how the programme rapidly escalated due to pressure from cities wanting a slice of the USAI funding. This massive escalation in the USAI programme has not been closely monitored by the DHS leading to a rampant waste of tax payer’s money at a time when the Federal deficit has ballooned to over $16 trillion. Here are some examples of how the USAI programme has been spending tax payer’s money.
Columbus, Ohio recently spent a USAI $98,000 grant to buy a ”underwater robot”. Apparently it was to be used for underwater rescues. Meanwhile, Keene, New Hampshire used USAI funds to buy a Bear cat armoured car. This in a town where there had been only one murder in the previous two years. Local officials said it would be used to patrol its annual pumpkin festival.
The list of funds that have been misspent goes on and on. Tulsa, Oklahoma used a USAI grant to strengthen a county jail and buy a colour printer. To cap it all, Jacksonville spent USAI money to sponsor a video which was supposed to alert local people to potential threats. It alerted residents to red flags such as people with “average or above average intelligence” or who displayed “increased frequency of prayer or religious behaviour.”
Audits carried out by the DHS Inspector General reveal ”serious shortcomings” about the way grants have been spent. The report questions how many of the acquisitions made by towns and cities have contributed in anyway to combating the threat of terrorism. The spending spree has led many cities to purchase military assets often used in war zones such as unmanned aerial drones and armoured cars. When officials in Carlsbad, California proposed buying a Bear cat armoured car one resident observed:
“What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”
Hard pressed tax payer’s who are suffering from wage cuts, job losses and cuts in Federal programmes are entitled to ask tough questions of the Department of Homeland Security. Senator Coburn’s report points out very forcefully that there have been few accountability measures in the USAI programme. He notes that,”there is almost no way to ensure taxpayers are getting value for their money, and more importantly, whether they are safer.”
Senator Coburn’s report goes on to question whether the UASI programme has made any difference to making America any safer from terrorist attacks. Of course, officials from the DHS maintain that their funding has been well spent and that it has improved America’s security. Senator Coburn’s report makes the critical observation that:
”…little concrete evidence exists to support such claims. …Ten years and billions of dollars since the September 11thattacks, many are asking is the nation safer and better prepared and if not, how much more money is needed to be adequately prepared. Instinctively, FEMA and its advocates declare that the nation is safer because of all the spending. The primary premise of providing grant dollars is to invest in security measures that reduce risk and stem the resulting losses from a potential attack. Yet, FEMA cannot demonstrate how UASI dollars (or for that matter, any other homeland security grant dollars) have helped to buy-down risk and enhance the nation’s ability to prevent, respond to, or recover from man made attacks or natural disasters.”
On 21 March Dr. Coburn spoke at a senate hearing which was the beginning of a four year review of the Department of Homeland Security. At the hearing Dr. Coburn made the following observation:
”With limited resources and a national debt of nearly $17 trillion, we simply cannot afford not to establish clear priorities for the department. …we need to focus DHS on the clear national security threats facing our nation—including counter-terrorism, border security, and maritime security. It also includes preparing for and preventing clear threats like nuclear and biological terrorism. … we must look at DHS’s programs to determine which are focused on them, and which are not. We simply can’t afford to fund forever programs that are not focused on clear national security threats.”
Senator Coburn’s report is a searing indictment of way in which billions of dollars of tax payer’s money has been misspent. At a time of economic crisis which has driven million of Americans into poverty, made millions homeless and greatly increased social divisions within the country the public should demand that DHS officials are held accountable for the wasteful use of tax payer’s money.
Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been engaged in massive surveillance of peaceful protesters which undermines protections enshrined in the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Two recent studies raise serious questions about the way the DHS has reacted to Occupy style protests. Let us not forget the primary mission of the DHS is to ”safeguard the United States against terrorism.”
In August of 2012 the bipartisan think tank The Constitution Project issued a report on DHS counter-terrorism fusion centres. It notes how there are 77 active fusion centres in the US which are information sharing hubs where DHS, FBI and state/local law enforcement agencies can pool intelligence and coordinate their activities. This report investigates the use of counter-terrorism fusion centres and notes that many:
”…pose serious risks to civil liberties, including rights of free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, racial and religious equality, privacy, and the right to be free from unnecessary government intrusion. Several fusion centers have issued bulletins that characterize a wide variety of religious and political groups as threats to national security. In some instances, state law enforcement agencies that funnel information to fusion centers have improperly monitored and infiltrated anti-war and environmental organizations.”
The report further notes that many fusion centres are keeping files upon people without proper justification. Racial, political and religious profiling of ordinary citizens is being carried which undermines First Amendment rights to freedom of association, freedom of religious and political beliefs.
Apparently, there are numerous examples of counter-terrorism fusion centres targeting a wide variety of different political groups for surveillance and infiltration. For example, between 2005-2007 the DHS and Maryland State Police spied upon and infiltrated anti-war, anti-death penalty and animal rights groups. Despite the fact that these were peaceful protesters who engaged in no criminal activity the surveillance went on for several years with many activists being designated terrorists. The report observes that: ”All told, data characterizing 53 peaceful activists (including two nuns) as “terrorists” was transmitted to at least seven federal and state agencies, including the National Security Agency.”
The Constitution Project report into DHS counter-terrorism fusion centres concludes with the recommendation that,”Congress, DHS or DOJ should commission an independent study of fusion center performance, sustainability and impact upon civil liberties.”
This violation of civil liberties is further confirmed by the release of DHS documents released by the Partnership for Civil Justice on 2 April 2013. Freedom of Information Act requests saw the DHS release hundreds of pages of heavily redacted documents that reveal the routine surveillance and disruption of free speech Occupy protests by DHS agents in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies.
Back in December, documents received by the Partnership for Civil Justice revealed the role of the FBI in monitoring and disrupting peaceful Occupy protests. They clearly show how the FBI regarded Occupy protestors as potential terrorists and criminals despite acknowledging that Occupy Wall Street movement consistently called for peaceful protests.
In the last few months of 2011 Occupy Wall Street faced a coordinated violent crackdown to evict protesters from public spaces by DHS, FBI and local law enforcement agencies. This violent crackdown had a stunning effect upon the peaceful Occupy movement which it has still not fully recovered from.
The recently released DHS documents show it devoted a lot of time, energy and resources to the constant surveillance of Occupy style protests in cities and towns across America. The DHS was obsessed with the question of whether any protests were receiving media coverage and if they were targeting federal property.
Before examining the nature of DHS activities during this phase of the Occupy movement it is worthwhile bearing in mind a comment made by DHS secretary Janet Napolitano on 2 April 2013:
”DHS is mindful that one of its missions is to ensure that privacy, confidentiality, civil rights and civil liberties are not diminished by the Department’s security initiatives”.
The surveillance of the Occupy Portland movement during October-November 2011 serves to illustrate the nature of DHS activities during this phase of the Occupy Wall Street movement which undermined First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.
In early October 2011 Occupy Portland was just getting going and DHS devoted considerable time to monitoring its twitter and face book activities. The main focus of its energies were daily surveillance of the various demonstrations and encampments that were set up in city parks and Terry Shrunk Plaza. The DHS was particularly concerned by the encampment on Terry Shrunk Plaza. DHS inspectors worked in shifts to carry out this round the clock surveillance. They were instructed to come with riot gear and be armed.
On the 5 October one agent’s report reads:
”300 turned up for last week’s planning session. This is triple the turnout for a similar event for a planning counsel. Event organizer’s have been heard discussing the coming wet weather…I think it is likely this event will affect federal property.” [He calls for extra agents to be sent to Portland for ]”civil disturbance operations”.
A report on 31 October 2011 with the heading ”Crime/Incident: Demonstration-Violent” notes that DHS agents and Portland police told 200 protesters to leave Terry Shrunk Plaza. The agent says that the DHS,”Acting Area Commander [redacted] advised that the demonstrators appear to have a mob mentality….Portland Police Commander [redacted] wants to coordinate with FPS [read DHS agents] an early morning removal of the tent and protesters tomorrow morning. Michael Moore (Hollywood Film Director) is at Terry Shrunk Plaza right now and is getting the crowd excited and having them bring more tents…”
On 1 November another report notes how DHS agents and Portland police were working together to remove Occupy protesters from Terry Shrunk Plaza:
”[DHS] inspectors entered Terry Shrunk Plaza and began announcing that everyone needed to leave and take down their tents or they would be arrested. 10 subjects refused to leave the property. …We handcuffed and transported all 10 subjects to Gus Solomon courthouse where we processed them. All of the subjects were cited and released for failure to conform to Lawful Direction.”
One could be forgiven for asking why are DHS agents spying upon peaceful protesters and then breaking up their free speech protests with arrests? The mission charter of the Department of Homeland Security says nothing about its role being to police free speech protests. One can only draw the conclusion that the DHS regards free speech protests as potential terror threats hence why it devoted such large amounts of energy and resources to mass surveillance of Occupy Wall Street during the autumn and winter of 2011.
Maria Verheyden-Hillard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice has observed that DHS agents during this period were ”functioning as a secret police force against people participating in lawful free speech activity…. The federal agencies’ actions were not because Occupy represented a ”terrorist threat” or a ”criminal threat” but rather because it posed a significant grass roots political challenge to the status quo”
These reports raise fundamental questions whether the Department of Homeland Security is fit for purpose. They suggest that the DHS spends a large amount of time and resources in undermining the civil liberties of peaceful protesters that have nothing to do with its official mandate of fighting terrorism.
The Department of Homeland Security declined the offer of commenting upon issues raised in this article.
Dylan Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.