The Trump administration didn’t make the DHS into a freight train — it just stepped on the gas. Against the wishes of the city’s leaders and amidst cries of illegality around the country, nameless Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents have continued to teargas, pepper-spray, shoot at, and generally terrorize protesters in Portland for the second week in a row.
And the story shows no sign of slowing: President Trump is now promising to send even more federal law enforcement officers into the city this weekend.
Every day seems to bring a slew of shocking new videos showing DHS’s war-like tactics, as it seeks to crush the protests near the federal building downtown. Unmarked vans are snatching people off the streets, agents are spraying so much tear gas it’s causing tornadoes, peaceful demonstrators are being shot in the head with rubber bullets, and journalists are getting attacked for documenting the aggressions.
This is, to borrow a phrase coined by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, turnkey tyranny come to life. Donald Trump may have given the order that led DHS to besiege Portland, but what we’re seeing is the natural progression of a sprawling federal agency handed incredible powers, with little oversight, that never should have existed in the first place.
DHS’s hallmarks have long included waste and fraud, overzealous secrecy, dubious methods of mass surveillance, and cruel and unusual actions against immigrants at the border.
In 2013, in his first public interview, Snowden warned against a future leader who might abuse his gratuitous surveillance powers for political gain. “A new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world — some new and unpredicted threat — we need more authority, we need more power,” Snowden said. “And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. It will be turnkey tyranny.”
Snowden was describing the massive (and illegal) surveillance authorities that the NSA had amassed in secret, but the phrase could not more perfectly describe DHS and its version of the secret police that we’ve seen in Portland.
That DHS is abusing its power should come as no surprise: The agency has been a civil liberties disaster since its hasty creation in the wake of 9/11. DHS’s hallmarks have long included waste and fraud, overzealous secrecy, dubious methods of mass surveillance, and cruel and unusual actions against immigrants at the border.
But in the past few weeks, the agency has gone even further. DHS seems happy to invade cities and states which have explicitly told them to stay out. It has made false statements in court. It doesn’t seem to have any qualms about ignoring a judicial order barring it from violent tactics against journalists and legal observers. It’s attempting to expand its surveillance powers without even alerting Congress.
To spy on protestors, DHS is flying surveillance planes around Portland and other cities — a practice that started at the beginning of the George Floyd protests.
What we’re seeing is exactly what civil liberties advocates warned about when the agency was formed and what has been unfolding slowly for many years.
The disturbing events of the last two weeks have forced at least one establishment figure to rethink her support of DHS. Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer penned an op-ed in the Washington Post saying she regretted her decision to vote for the formation of DHS in 2002. “Here’s where I went wrong,” she wrote. “I never imagined that a president would use unconfirmed puppets like acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, to terrorize our own citizens in our own country.”
While it’s admirable she is admitting it — and other current members of Congress who voted with George W. Bush to create the agency should follow her lead — what we’re seeing is exactly what civil liberties advocates warned about when the agency was formed and what has been unfolding slowly for many years. It’s why many were calling for the abolition of DHS during the Obama administration. Unfortunately, DHS’s budget only grew.
The truth is that the Trump administration didn’t build the runaway freight train. It just stepped on the gas.
Certainly, Democratic leaders have amped up their criticism. They have referred to DHS agents in Portland as “Stormtroopers” who must be stopped. They’ve accused DHS of potential criminal activity by retaliating against the state of New York in a coronavirus dispute, and have called for multiple investigations into the agency’s conduct.
It doesn’t seem to have deterred the Trump administration, though. DHS officials have repeatedly promised to deploy similar secret police units decked out in combat gear across cities in the United States.
So why have Congressional leaders so far refused to exercise their real power? Congress must approve the next round of DHS funding. Instead of refusing to fund DHS until the Trump administration agrees to robustly reform the agency — like many members of the Progressive Caucus want — Democratic leadership in the House is reportedly considering tying the funding to a must-pass coronavirus legislation that will make it much harder for any member to vote against.
Refusing to force more accountability upon DHS and the Trump administration would be political negligence even if DHS troops weren’t in Portland, but right now, it should be a scandal. The solution is quite simple. If Congress thinks DHS is deploying “Stormtroopers” and engaged in criminal activity, defund them — or move to dismantle the agency entirely. Anything less at this point won’t come close to addressing the issue.