Something dangerous is taking shape within the Department of Homeland Security.
We got our first glimpse of it last week in Oregon, when unidentified federal agents clad in camouflage and tactical gear descended on Portland, beat and tear-gassed protesters and pulled others into unmarked vehicles for arrest and questioning.
Apparently cobbled together using personnel from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, these “rapid deployment teams” are formally tasked with securing federal buildings from graffiti and vandalism in tandem with the Federal Protective Agency, which is ordinarily responsible for the job. But they’re being used to suppress protests in what appears to be an election year gambit by the Trump administration to create images of disorder and chaos on which the president can then campaign. “This political theater from President Donald Trump has nothing to do with public safety,” Kate Brown, the Democratic governor of Oregon, said last week, “Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”
The official tasked with coordinating all this action, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, is an enthusiastic participant, casting protesters as “violent anarchists and extremists” in order to justify what’s been done to them. “The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city,” Wolf said. “This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law.”
On Sunday, Wolf’s deputy, Ken Cuccinelli (whose official title is “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security”), told NPR that Homeland Security would be taking these tactics nationwide. Wolf affirmed this, telling Fox News that his agency can act with or without local cooperation. “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job,” he said. “We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” President Trump likewise vowed to send federal law enforcement agents to several more cities, amid reports that a Portland-like force was headed to Chicago.
There’s more. In addition to its rapid deployment teams, the Department of Homeland Security has also authorized domestic surveillance of Americans on the basis of the president’s June executive order on the protection of statues and monuments. Writing for the Lawfare blog, the legal scholars Steve Vladeck and Benjamin Wittes explain that the “animating premise” of the new rules “is that the threat to monuments and statues is a homeland security threat warranting intelligence analysis and collection by federal officials.” The administration, they continue, is using the “cover of minor property damage” to “justify intelligence gathering against ordinary Americans” for “peacefully protesting their government.”
The United States is no stranger to the use of military or quasi-military force against protesters. During the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt of farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania that culminated in 1794, President George Washington raised a federal militia to meet insurgents in the field. To break the Pullman Strike of 1894, during which workers shut down rail traffic in much of the country, President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops to Chicago, sparking a confrontation that ended in the deaths of 30 workers. And in 1932, under orders from President Herbert Hoover, Gen. Douglas MacArthur confronted the Bonus Army — a group of World War I veterans who camped out in Washington, D.C., petitioning the government for their promised bonuses for military service — with infantry, cavalry and tanks.
The difference lies less in the acts themselves than in the ways these events developed. Use of military force against strikers and protesters is certainly controversial, but for the most part it unfolds along clear lines of responsibility and involves powers expressly granted to the president. As the example of Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrates, it was part of the constitutional design. Trump’s internal security force was, by contrast, created out of public view, using loopholes and expansive interpretations of the law. The reason Customs and Border Protection can be used to police a protest in Portland is, for example, because the Department of Homeland Security can supplement law enforcement from one agency with personnel from another.
There are other elements beyond the fact of its existence that make the emergence of an internal security force extremely troubling. As a candidate, Trump actively cultivated both the leadership and the rank-and-file of the border police and ICE. In turn, they gave him his support — unions for both agencies endorsed Trump for president. Under his leadership, these agencies have shown themselves to be deeply simpatico with the administration’s draconian approach to immigration at the southern border, with aggressive action against migrants, asylum-seekers and unauthorized immigrants.
A secretive, nationwide police force — created without congressional input or authorization, formed from highly politicized agencies, tasked with rooting out vague threats and answerable only to the president — is a nightmare out of the fever dreams of the founding generation, federalists and antifederalists alike. It’s something Americans continue to fear and for good reason. It is a power that cannot and should not exist in a democracy, lest it undermine and destroy the entire project.
Democrats, thankfully, seem to recognize this. “We live in a democracy, not a banana republic. We will not tolerate the use of Oregonians, Washingtonians — or any other Americans — as props in President Trump’s political games,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Saturday, in a joint statement with Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “The House is committed to moving swiftly to curb these egregious abuses of power immediately.”
But rhetoric isn’t enough. The House must act and act now. In addition to holding hearings and investigations — including eliciting testimony from Wolf and other officials — Democrats should condition final passage of its Homeland Security appropriations bill on a complete halt to operations in Portland and other cities and the dissolution of the response force. Should Democrats find themselves in control of both legislative branches and the White House next year, they should also use the opportunity to amend the relatively obscure Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which Trump has used to install loyalists in high-level positions without Senate confirmation.
There’s also the issue of the Department of Homeland Security itself. Since its creation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the department has been criticized for its size, scope and waste. “It goes without saying that I observed up-close the dysfunction, turf battles, and inherent limitations in an entity that does so much,” Matt Mayer, a Homeland Security official under George W. Bush, wrote in 2015. Report after report — from congressional oversight committees, from the Government Accountability Office — show an agency practically defined by waste and dysfunction. And if the Trump years have shown anything, it is that the agencies within DHS, and especially ICE and CBP, are in desperate need of root-and-branch reform or some other fundamental change.
Should Trump fail to win reelection, perhaps the way to prevent a replay of the abuse in Portland is to dismantle the institution behind it. Just as local communities do not need militarized police officers, the federal government does not need an alphabet soup of militarized law enforcement agencies, as well as the cultures of prejudice and brutality that have gone along with them. If and when we close the book on Trump, perhaps we should use the opportunity to close the book on Homeland Security, too.