Defund Homeland Security: Creating a massive federal police apparatus was always a mistake

We built and funded a federal secret-police agency, and now it's being used against us. Why are we surprised?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 22, 2020 8:58AM (EDT)

Federal officers operate amid tear gas while clearing the street in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The federal police response to the ongoing protests against racial inequality has been criticized by city and state elected officials as President Trump threatens to use Federal law enforcement in other major cities as well. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Federal officers operate amid tear gas while clearing the street in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The federal police response to the ongoing protests against racial inequality has been criticized by city and state elected officials as President Trump threatens to use Federal law enforcement in other major cities as well. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

It seems like only yesterday that Republicans were wringing their hands and rending their garments over federal officers attempting to arrest a large group of armed militia members who had taken over a federal building in Oregon and were refusing to leave. (The 2016 "Oregon standoff" is the subject of Anthony McCann's fascinating book "Shadowlands.") They were led by Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who triggered an earlier standoff with government forces in 2014, and they said they were planning to occupy the building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge "for years" as a protest against the conviction of two local ranchers who had been found guilty of arson for setting fire to government land. After six weeks of negotiating with federal authorities, the protesters were finally dispersed. Some did time but Ammon Bundy and a dozen others were tried and acquitted.

From 2014 to 2016, the right wing had been up in arms about the federal jack-booted thugs who were allegedly interfering in the protests by the God-fearing, freedom-loving Bundys and their armed allies who were just standing up for their rights. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., met personally with Cliven Bundy during the earlier standoff and said the group had legitimate constitutional questions. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was all-in, calling that protest "the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on."

Donald Trump also expressed support for Cliven Bundy, saying, "I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk and the people that are so loyal … I respect him." (Bundy supported him right back.) In fact, Trump respected the Bundy movement so much he later pardoned Dwight and Stephen Hammond, the two ranchers who had been convicted of arson. They just burned federal land and their supporters only desecrated Native American artifacts on a federal wildlife refuge. It's not like they tore down a statue or anything important.

I bring that story up now only because as we have watched the events unfold in Portland, Oregon, over the past few days — a few hours west of the Malheur refuge — with federal police in full military regalia attacking and kidnapping protesters, I'm struck by the deafening silence from all those erstwhile defenders of free speech and the right to protest. I guess in order for them to speak out, the protesters have to be carrying AR-15s.

Trump's decision to send in DHS stormtroopers to Portland is anything but surprising. He's been telegraphing his intention to do this since the George Floyd murder sparked protests in the beginning of June. And let's be clear about the reasons. Trump doesn't care about American cities or statues or "anarchy" or any of the rest of it. He cares about getting re-elected, and since he doesn't know how to deal with the pandemic crisis, he figured he could use the Black Lives Matter protests to spark a white backlash that will carry him to victory.

Sending troops onto the streets to "dominate" the protesters has been his plan from the beginning. He hasn't kept it a secret. It's just that since the military balked at being used for this purpose, he's had to cobble together units from the Department of Homeland Security and get them outfitted to look like they're about to take Fallujah. (Using rented minivans seems a little off-brand, but I guess they must not have had time to roll in the tanks. )

I urge you to read the transcript of the call Trump had with state governors on the Monday in June after he had to scurry into his bunker when the protests got close to the White House. His disrespectful language and the daft demands for domination were typical Trump rambling. But he included Attorney General Bill Barr on that call as well, and he was explicit about what they planned to do:

[F] ederal law enforcement, working with your state and local law enforcement, to be more dynamic and to go after the troublemakers. To go after the guys that are throwing the bricks and (INAUDIBLE) ... running around starting fires. They have to be taken from the street and arrested and processed. The structure we're going to use is the joint terrorist task force, which I know most of you are familiar with. Tried and true system, it's worked for domestic and homegrown terrorists, and we're going to employ that model. It already integrates your state and local people and it's intelligence driven and it will go operational.

That is exactly what they are doing in Portland, no? The only glitch is that they're apparently detaining people without probable cause so they can't arrest them. But what they can do is photograph them and otherwise catalog their identity, which is almost certainly a big part of the project. They are creating a database of dissidents.

Chicago may be next. According to the AP, DHS is planning to send in 150 officers to help the city with "crime," assistance that no one has asked for and no one wants. That tracks with yet another Barr project, "Operation Legend," announced earlier this month "to combat the disturbing uptick in violence by surging federal agents and other federal assets into cities like Kansas City, a city currently experiencing its worst homicide rate in its history."

As this Just Security post points out, Barr has a long history of manipulating the law to put armed federal troops on the streets, and now he's found a president who thinks that's a great idea for his own reasons and has given him the green light. DHS is happily on board. But as Salon's Andrew O'Hehir observed last Sunday, it doesn't really matter what the reasons are:

The president and his sniveling retinue of "acting" factotums up and down the national security chain may not have a coherent master plan to rip out the rest of American democracy by the roots and replace it with something more to their liking. But that is unquestionably what their collective hive-mind desires, and there are people behind them, just out of view, who are willing and able to articulate such an agenda clearly. That's generally how fascism seems to work ...

Let's face it: It would be a lot harder for Trump and Barr to pull this off if we didn't have a massive federal police apparatus called the Department of Homeland Security in the first place. It was only a matter of time before someone used it to quell dissent. Its fascistic potential was there from the start.

Andrew Feinberg, in the UK Independent, quotes Paul Rosenzweig, who served as DHS deputy assistant secretary for policy during the Bush administration:

There were many who thought that DHS should not be created precisely because they were worried that it would be essentially an internal police force, and there were many like me, who said: "Oh, that's absurd. Come on. You know we need a coordinated unity of effort against terrorism, and this is a good way to do it." But there's a lot of justice to that now.

You didn't have to be a national security expert to see where all that was going. My mantra throughout the post-9/11 build-up of this massive surveillance and police apparatus has been, "If you build it, they will use it." They are using it. Of course they are.

Final passage of the Homeland Security appropriations bill is coming up soon. Democrats need to put their feet down and demand that these uninvited incursions into American cities stop immediately. Beyond that, there must be a complete re-evaluation of the department, including consideration of breaking it up entirely. The country managed to function without it quite well for centuries.

The least they can do is change the name. From the moment they started talking about "Homeland Security" we knew it was only a matter of time before we'd see federal police in the streets. How could it be otherwise? The only surprise is that it took this long. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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