Nineteen Septembers ago, a new bureau was dreamed up in the White House. The Office of Homeland Security debuted Oct. 8, 2001, promising to “develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks”—like the big one that had caught George W. Bush asleep at the wheel less than a month before.
Its first chief was former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, whose signal accomplishment, besides overseeing the office’s transition into a sprawling cabinet-level department, was to spark a nationwide run on duct tape. (Home Depot’s stock price soared; Ridge later joined Home Depot’s board of directors.)
There were immediate concerns about the new department, starting with the name. “Homeland ain’t no American word,” Peggy Noonan wrote. “It has a vaguely Teutonic ring—Ve must help ze Fuehrer protect ze Homeland!—and Republicans must always be on guard against sounding Teutonic.” Dara Lind made a pragmatic case for abolition a decade later: “If the point of DHS was to consolidate disaster prevention (whether natural or terroristic) and response under one roof, it failed miserably.”
The worst-case scenario was always that this sinisterly named, ineffective-at-its-stated-purpose-yet-extremely-powerful bundle of agencies—including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, and Secret Service—would fall under an administration even more incompetent and prone to authoritarianism than Bush’s.
Which brings us to this week.
Since Monday …
A nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, a privately-owned, for-profit ICE prison in southern Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint with the DHS’s inspector general alleging at least twenty female detainees had received hysterectomies for no apparent reason.
“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies,” a detainee told the human-rights advocacy group Project South—a disturbingly apt analogy, as readers of this newsletter know. The whistleblower called the doctor who performed the surgeries “the uterus collector.”
Meanwhile, two different revelations emerged about DHS’s efforts to crush the early June protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Washington’s Lafayette Square—the one that ended with protesters being tear-gassed to make way for Trump’s photo-op with a Bible:
Earlier this week, we learned that the massive COVID-19 outbreak at the privately owned ICE prison at Farmville, Va., was caused because ICE agents needed an excuse to travel to the park across from the White House. In short, according to the Washington Post: Agents are not allowed to travel aboard “ICE Air” charter flight without bringing detainees along.
As previously covered here in The Long Version, the agents brought 74 immigrants and refugees from two of the biggest coronavirus hot spots in the country at the time—Arizona and Florida—to the Virginia facility. ICE tried to cover up the outbreak, but the prison’s private director confessed to it in a court filing. Nearly the entire population tested positive: 339 cases of COVID were ultimately confirmed. One detainee, a Canadian citizen, died.
The second revelation, reported today, was that, in addition to using pepper balls and, likely, CS gas, federal officials “began to stockpile ammunition and seek devices that could emit deafening sounds and make anyone within range feel like their skin is on fire.” The latter weapon—the Raytheon “Active Denial System,” or ADS—is better known as a “Heat Ray” or “Pain Ray,” designed to deliver “12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter,” as Spencer Ackerman reported in 2012. It was deployed to Afghanistan, but supposedly never used in combat.
That federal agents were stockpiling ammunition to use against people using their First Amendment rights in a public plaza next to a house owned by the citizens of this country is doubly disturbing after Trump praised federal officials for the Sept. 3 street killing of Michael Reinoehl in Lacey, Wash. Reinoehl, a 48-year-old white man, was wanted in the shooting of a member of the violent pro-Trump militia Patriot Prayer, following a rampage by far-right activists and hate groups through Portland—where, a few weeks earlier, CBP agents had been seen abducting a dissident off the street and shoving him into an unmarked car.
It is not clear how the U.S. Marshals (who are under the Justice Department, not DHS), or the local cops and sheriffs, justified shooting and killing Reinoehl on the street (they claim bodycam footage doesn’t exist). But this week, Trump celebrated the mere likelihood that they murdered him extrajudicially, telling Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro: “That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”
And, thanks to the careful reading of the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, we learned that yet another whistleblower revealed that the Illegally Appointed Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli asked him to rewrite and suppress intelligence that contradicted Trump’s arguments for refusing asylum claims and building his fanciful border wall. The summary is straight out of the McCarthy Era:
According to Murphy, Cuccinelli not only claimed the reports must be false, but also attributed them to forces within the intelligence community hostile to the President. He accused “unknown ‘deep state intelligence analysts’ of compiling intelligence information to undermine President Donald J. Trump’s policy objectives with respect to asylum.” According to Murphy, Cuccinelli further ordered him to identify those “who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately”
(Cuccinelli is also the Illegally Appointed Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.)
It is what it is
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the rot at DHS. In August, a group of immigrants alleged a “pattern and practice” of sexual abuse and assault on the part of ICE agents in El Paso. A Border Patrol memo unearthed by Dara Lind in April showed that CBP is using the pandemic as cover to flat-out ignore international asylum law. In another case, ICE is deporting children by claiming they tested positive for COVID—even though they know the kids tested negative.
ICE guards have gotten caught savagely beating detainees and feeding Muslim detainees pork. A few weeks ago, the New York Times revealed the Trump administration is using private hotels, including Hampton Inns, a Best Western, a Quality Suites, and a Comfort Suites, to create a “shadow system of detention” that, among other abuses, includes ICE housing children as young as a year old, alone, without licensed child care supervision.
Meanwhile at least 5,000 people are known to have contracted coronavirus while being held in ICE concentration camps. In April, a pair of guards-turned-whistleblowers at the ICE facility in Richwood, La. (run by the same company, LaSalle Corrections, that owns the allegedly hysterectomy-happy Irwin County concentration camp), reported that negligence at the facility risked “a potential disease bomb,” Popular Information reported. COVID cases appear to now be spiking at ICE’s facility at Adelanto, Calif.
That all led up to today, Thursday, when the Illegally Appointed Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, ex-revolving-door-lobbyist Chad Wolf, was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House committee that oversees DHS about worldwide threats to the United States.
The illegal acting secretary illegally ignored the subpoena. According to CNN, the House has no way to enforce that violation of the law, because Trump’s executive branch is run by unrepentant criminals who don’t give a shit about the law (my paraphrase), and a recent appeals court decision gutted the House’s ability to ask judges to enforce their decisions (that’s their wording).
Meantime, House Republicans on the oversight committee were eager to use DHS to persecute dissidents and the political opposition:
Andrew Solender @AndrewSolender"A group of Republicans said they're prepared to work with Joe Biden," Biden says. "I'm confident with President Trump out of the way... there's gonna be an awful lot of Republicans... somewhere between 6 and 8 Republicans who are ready to get things done."
These are the people in charge of today’s Department of Homeland Security. Why do we need one of those again?
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.