Homeland Insecurity

BY Doug Ireland

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George W. Bush’s proposal for a new, mammoth Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is nothing more than an ill-conceived product of the White House’s well-oiled media misdirection machine. Concocted in a secrecy so complete that some cabinet members whose departments were affected by the reorganization found out about it from the press, this latest boondoggle dumps 153 government entities into a new catch-all Tower of Babel that will have some 29 separate offices with 170,000 employees and a budget of over $37 billion, according to early estimates.

This PR gesture was hatched so hastily in order to smother public concern in the wake of wall-to-wall coverage that made the pre-9/11 intelligence failures of the incompetent FBI, CIA, INS, FAA and other bureaucracies the talk of America’s breakfast tables. So far the cynical ploy seems to be working: An ABC/Washington Post poll in the days after Bush’s June 6 primetime TV address announcing the new department showed that 7 in 10 Americans approved of it, while three in four believed the DHS would help prevent future terrorist attacks.

How could the public not be bamboozled when the Democrats’ congressional leaders joined the chorus of orchestrated praise for the idea? Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt promised to whip the proposal through the legislative process by the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, leaving little time for real scrutiny of the cumbersome details in the biggest structural change in government in 55 years. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman advanced his presidential ambitions by racing from one TV studio to another to proclaim that Bush had simply borrowed his ideas.

But the new department will actually make Americans less safe by subsuming under its aegis a raft of agencies responsible for protecting the public from other harms. For example, having already appointed a gun-toting deputy sheriff and former Green Beret from Arizona as surgeon-general, Bush completes the militarization of the nation’s already strained public health service by putting civilian medical research programs from Health and Human Services into the new department. This means every health crisis, from AIDS to the epidemic of drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, will take second place to Bush’s war.

Likewise impaired by their new priorities as part of the DHS will be the air-sea rescue functions of the Coast Guard; FEMA’s ability to respond to natural disasters; and the FAA’s responsibility to protect commercial aircraft from the depredations of corporate cost-cutters. And the list goes on.

As for Bush’s plan to put the INS in the new department, one of the few Democratic critics, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, rightly said: “Reviewing sensitive matters such as asylum from the point of view of homeland security makes little sense to anyone sensitive to immigrants’ needs. We are a nation of immigrants, and individuals facing persecution deserve an unbiased review of their case, which will be difficult to receive in a new agency with a narrow mission focused on excluding immigrants.”

Or, as Dubya himself puts it in his own inimitable way, “We need to know who’s coming in, and why they’re not going out.”

Moreover, excluding the FBI and the CIA—the two principal agencies charged with locating terrorists—from the DHS means an inevitable duplication of functions by the new agency. Bush has yet to explain how adding yet another layer of paper-shuffling analysts to filter intelligence before it gets to the White House does anything but create a framework for more failures.

But DHS will create a new funnel for surveillance data from the FBI and CIA to local law enforcement. With the new FBI guidelines that permit surveillance of political meetings and the CIA’s first-ever authorization to engage in domestic spying, this DHS pipeline will only encourage the growth of municipal “political police” squads (like the one in Denver whose anti-civil libertarian antics have outraged Colorado).

Every week, it seems, brings new evidence of the FBI’s ethically bankrupt, anti-constitutional culture—like the $4.4 million verdict on June 11 in the lawsuit against the bureau brought by Earth First! activists Darryl Cherney and the late Judi Bari. Or take the San Francisco Chronicle’s 17-year campaign under the Freedom of Information Act (now eviscerated by a Bush ukase), which finally revealed massive FBI spying in the ’60s at the University of California.

Yet when FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee after the new FBI guidelines reauthorizing political spying were issued, the Democrats who control the committee hardly raised the major threat to civil liberties and free speech (with the exception of a feeble objection from Washington’s Maria Cantwell).

Like the month-long delay in revealing the arrest of gang-banger Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, Bush’s DHS flailings are designed to cover up the folly of his decision to militarize what should have been an international law enforcement campaign against terrorism. Waging conventional warfare against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was, as one intelligence analyst recently told Nightline, “like hitting a beehive with a baseball bat,” allowing the fanatics to escape, disperse and regroup around the globe.

And while European police services have been rolling up al-Qaeda cells and operatives, U.S. agencies have yet to uncover anyone more threatening than the incompetent Padilla (the so-called dirty bomber’s preparations appear to have consisted mostly of surfing the Internet), something the DHS is unlikely to change.

At the moment, the gravest dangers facing Americans are coming from our own government.

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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. He’s a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.

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