By Mark Miller
The rise of the Department of Homeland Security is an Orwellian nightmare. Mechanisms that were created to combat the threat of terrorism are now used liberally for surveillance on ordinary Americans.
Consider, if you will, the following:
- Torture, brutal beatings, and sexual assaults taking place at government holding areas for detainees.
- An innocuous trip to the mall that results in a shopper’s name being placed in a confidential report and forwarded to the police.
- Personal information about US citizens being extracted during government data-mining “tests.”
- Personal mail routinely being opened and read because it was sent from other countries.
- Law enforcement groups, aided and abetted by “anti-terrorism” analysts, monitoring antiwar protestors, environmental groups, abortion activists (pro and con), even third-party voters.
Is this the stuff of fiction, the picture of a fascist takeover of America ripped from the pages of the latest paperback thriller? Nope – it’s what’s going on right here, right now in the good ol’ USA, all courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security.
This year marks a full decade since the formation of the DHS. In that short time, it has grown to become the third-largest US Cabinet department, employing almost a quarter of a million people. Those figures shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the sheer number of agencies encompassed under the DHS umbrella, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement. The department was created by the Bush administration in 2002 in response to the event that has dominated and largely defined both US security measures and geopolitics in the 21st century – the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“One Team, One Mission, Securing Our Homeland” is the proud (if ineptly punctuated) motto of the DHS, and its declared mission statement sounds clear and resolute: “to lead the unified national effort to secure the country and preserve our freedoms.”
But while the DHS may be “secur-ng” the country (for whom is another question), is it truly in the business of preserving our freedoms? Or is it instead advancing a police state in which our constitutional rights – including the right to privacy – are regarded as quaint relics of the 20th century?
Over the years, the activities of the DHS have raised more questions than answers, prompting investigative journalism from both the mainstream and alternative press as well as conspiratology circles – most notably Alex Jones, the creator of Infowars.com, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, host of truTV’s Conspiracy Theory, who did a controversial episode on the growth of FEMA’s detention camps.
Even the term “Homeland” is problematic in some circles, since it seems to echo Nazi Germany’s self-referential use of the term “Fatherland” (though, to be fair, the word Heimat, roughly translated as “homeland,” was in use in Germany long before the Nazis came to power). More telling is the official DHS seal: It depicts an eagle “whose outstretched wings break through an inner red ring into an outer white ring,” symbolizing that the department will transcend the typical bureaucratic red tape and “perform government functions differently” (to quote the DHS’s own press release). Yet it’s precisely those unspecified ways of performing government functions “differently” – especially those that infringe upon our basic rights – that pose the greatest concern.
In mid-2011, the Aspen Institute’s annual Security Forum (think along the lines of the Council on Foreign Relations, another organization that brings together those in power to decide the direction of public policy) formally advocated that the DHS shift its priorities from foreign threats to a more domestic agenda. That includes safeguarding the nation from the threat of “homegrown terror” as well as providing cyber security, all with the intent of protecting “critical infrastructure” – code for government and corporate property and interests. Given that the DHS was created as a direct response to the September 11 attacks, this kind of “mission creep” recalls the US’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq as part of its War on Terror – despite the fact that the country had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.
In 2003, just a year after its formation, the DHS absorbed the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and retooled it as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which operates a sprawling network of prisons, jails and detention centers nationwide – more than 200 at last count, according to aNew York Times article published in 2010. A more recent Times editorial (December 4, 2011) condemned this detention system as “dangerously broken” after numerous reports of people in custody being beaten or sexually assaulted, as well as sick or injured detainees going untreated and left to die.
Last December, for example, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a transgender woman who alleges that she was sexually abused twice at a detention center in Eloy, AZ – the same center where 18 Hawaiian prisoners were also allegedly tortured. The Eloy facility is run under contract by a private company, Corrections Corporation of America, which has also been sued by the ACLU in Idaho over the number of violent inmate assaults in the facility that it operates there (in 2008, more than every other prison in the state combined).
The Times editorial also criticized the Obama administration for its failure to make good on its 2009 promise to reform this system, pointing out that the majority of detainees in these facilities – some 400,000 per year – “are not being held as criminals and pose no threat.” The editorial noted that the ACLU uncovered almost 200 allegations of sexual abuse at the ICE facilities urged the US Department of Justice to abandon its proposed rule exempting these centers from the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which aims to prevent the sexual abuse of those in custody. The fact that such a rule would even be contemplated by the Justice Department suggests a strong desire to curtail investigations into the seemingly institutionalized and systematic abuse at these detention centers.
Within a week, the DHS issued a rebuttal (also published in the Times) insisting that ICE has implemented reforms and oversight as a result of the abuses, and that the agency does indeed support the Prison Rape Elimination Act – yet it never addressed why the Justice Department would propose such an exemption in the first place, or what it says about the department’s willingness to investigate the sexual assaults and other abuses being committed in these facilities.
Another overreaching element to ICE is the agency’s Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line, which encourages John Q. Public to play DHS narc and call an 800 number to report any number of crimes, up to and including “intellectual property rights violations” (because that’s the first thing that comes to mind when people think of “homeland” security – making sure patents are protected).
Unknown to most Americans is the existence of so-called “fusion centers” that have been in place in some locales for nearly a decade, established by the DHS between 2003 and 2007. Sources as disparate as the Cato Institute, a conservative libertarian think tank, and the progressive radio/TV showDemocracy Now have criticized the excesses being committed by these centers.
Fusion centers engage in data mining, a relatively new field of computer science in which “hidden knowledge” is obtained via discovering new patterns generated by the intersection of various data sets. To accomplish this, fusion centers utilize personnel from local, state and federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the CIA and FBI (hence the “fusion” part), who gather and share raw information on “criminals and terrorists” in conjunction with the private sector – be it companies or citizens – with the objective of achieving a more sophisticated integration of raw data to yield more accurate analysis.
At last count, there were 72 fusion centers across the country, most heavily concentrated around urban areas (for an eye-opening map, go towww.pbs.org). What’s really going on here, though? Examples of the “analysis” being generated by these centers run the gamut from the ludicrous to the downright disturbing, especially when it comes to signs of creeping (and creepy) fascism. For example, a Washington State fusion center was involved in spying on antiwar activists and anarchists. In Wisconsin, both pro- and anti-abortion activists were placed under surveillance. In Pennsylvania, the DHS didn’t discriminate when it came to the political spectrum: Everyone got snooped on, from environmentalists to Tea Partiers and the right-to-bear-arms crowd.
Scarier still was the Maryland State Police entering the names of anti-death-penalty activists and antiwar protestors in a federal database for potential terrorists and “high-intensity” drug traffickers. And you’d better be a Democrat or a very mainstream Republican in Missouri, since third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were being monitored by the DHS fusion center there.
As to the ultimate purpose of these centers, do they truly exist to curtail crime and prevent acts of terrorism? Or do they serve as the justification and means by which the multiple prongs of government – local, state and federal – can effectively conduct surveillance on nearly every component of virtually every American’s life?
In 2006, MSNBC reported that Grant Goodman, an 81-year-old retired history professor from the University of Kansas, received a letter from a friend in the Philippines, only to discover that it had been opened and resealed with a strip of tape bearing the official Homeland Security seal – courtesy of US Customs and Border Protection, which had decided to inspect the letter even though it was sent to him by a Filipina colleague (a “devout Catholic,” according to Goodman) with absolutely no record of involvement in terrorism, Islamic or otherwise, in her life.
Once upon a time, such official behavior would have stood as an outrageous affront to the cherished American value of privacy. But, apparently, that’s the way it’s going to be in “War on Terror” America: A Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed that all mail originating from a foreign location – including personal correspondence – is subject to examination by the CPB.
Located in Bloomington, MN, the Mall of America is the second-largest in terms of space in the US, with the greatest number of stores in the country (more than 500). The mall receives more than 40 million visitors annually – and it has also been the site of some of the most egregious DHS fusion-center-related activity in recent years.
Then there’s the tale of Najam Qureshi, a kiosk operator at the Mall of America selling goods from his, er, homeland of Pakistan. One day, Qureshi’s father threatened the security of this nation by accidentally leaving his cell phone on a table in the mall’s food court. An FBI agent later showed up at Qureshi’s home to question his family about the “incident” and determine whether they were acquainted with anyone who might pose a threat to the US.
We’re not sure whether or not to give the DHS credit for this one, but in the interests of fairness, we’ll include it. According to the Associated Press, in 2007 the department finally ceased operation of a wide-ranging “anti-terrorism” data mining system dubbed ADVISE, an acronym for Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement. (Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?)
ADVISE was shut down after the DHS’s inspector general discovered after the fact that system tests were being conducted using the personal information of real people in “data mining exercises” instead of the legally required dummy values. Unfortunately, this dismantling was hardly done in a timely manner, since the Government Accountability Office had declared months earlier that ADVISE could misidentify and/or erroneously associate innocent people with fraud, crime and even terrorist acts.
Oddly enough, rank-and-file employees at the DHS don’t seem to relish their jobs. (Then again, why would they?) In a 2006 survey of workers in 36 different federal agencies, DHS came in last or near last in every category, from grading management to job satisfaction. Had there been a rating for “Most Paranoid Work Environment,” the DHS would’ve won going away. One of the specific criticisms that DHS employees leveled in the survey was a lack of information about what goes on in the organization, hinting at upper-level DHS secrecy.
Not feeling paranoid enough yet? Then meet the “Universal Adversary,” a chilling term that suggests that anyone – and perhaps everyone – can ultimately be regarded as an enemy by the DHS.
As reported by the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalisation, the Universal Adversary (UA) is a theoretical construct defined by the Homeland Security Council to include not just the usual foreign terrorists and rogue states, but also “domestic radical groups” (think Occupy Wall Street or even pot-legalization organizations) and “disgruntled employees” (such as striking labor unions).
The Universal Adversary Program actually predates 9/11: It was developed in response to a September 2000 US Senate report requiring that anti-terrorism exercises include a realistic “threat model.” By 2005, the all-embracing UA concept was being deployed as a “reality model” in the first-ever test of US intelligence systems in a domestic counterterrorism exercise.
There is also the concern that this “fictional yet highly realistic adversary” (to quote FEMA’s own words) can create a perceived threat in the minds of the more than 10,000 participants (including federal, state and local officials, as well as law-enforcement officers on every level) who have engaged in UA exercises. Indeed, in a seeming real-world application of the program, the DHS’s Federal Protective Service was used in conjunction with local police to break up the Occupy Wall Street camp in Portland, OR.
And what might the DHS be planning to do with those it identifies as the Universal Adversary? Lock ’em up in FEMA-operated prison camps. As reported by Infowars.com, in May 2011 the DHS solicited for private contractors to construct “National Responder Support Camps.” You may remember FEMA best for its inept response to Hurricane Katrina, but the agency also assists with designated National Special Security Events (NSSE). One event was the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN, where protesting activists arrested and charged with “conspiracy to riot in the second degree in the furtherance of terrorism.” It’s not hard to imagine a future scenario in which homegrown “terrorists” are detained in these soon-to-be-built “Support Camps.”
This article merely scratches the surface of the last 10 years, and we encourage every reader to research these issues. The DHS’s corruption of power exists at many levels, and it simply cannot be tolerated by a society that wishes to remain free. We need to build an awareness of these abuses being committed in the name of “homeland security.” Since the DHS is probably monitoring you one way or another, why not keep tabs on them? We sure plan to.