Monday, March 2, 2015

Homeland Security Blanket

It is amusing to watch the Republicans' inability to govern their own lunatic ward d/b/a the House of Representatives.  House Speaker John Boehner's orange hue is starting to pale as he attempts to navigate between the nihilists in his party who welcome shutting down the government in order to make a symbolic point about Obama's immigration policies and those who have at least a tenuous grasp on reality that allow them to understand that the failure to fund the Department of Homeland Security has political perils if not national security ones.

California Senator Barbara Boxer's recent rant against Senate Republicans received a lot of attention.  She trashed them as a "national disgrace" for threatening a shutdown "of the very agency that protects the health, the safety, the lives, of the American people – the Department of Homeland Security."  She noted GOP hypocrisy in arguing for the need to go to war against terrorists while "willing to shut down the department that protects Americans here in the homeland, from a terrorist attack."  Ultimately, she blasted Republicans for pursing an agenda based on their animus towards President Obama and urged them to "grow up" and govern:  "So get over the fact that you don’t like the president. We get it. You couldn’t beat him. Too bad for you. But you’re in charge here, in the Senate. Do your job! Bring an immigration bill to the floor. Let’s let this Homeland Security Bill go. It’s a bipartisan bill. It’s funding for the most important thing we’re doing today. Let it go. Don’t hold it hostage to your hatred of this president, and I use that word because that’s what I think. That’s what I think…. Grow up. Do your job, you know? Do your job! Have respect for the office of the presidency."

This was a powerful speech and no doubt Republicans need to be scolded for their hypocrisy and their pettiness.  But what Sen. Boxer does not seem to question and what is lost in virtually all the discussions about Republican intransigence and irresponsibility is whether we really need to fund DHS in the first place.

The Department of Homeland Security is an incredibly expensive and unwieldy security blanket created by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11.  Its stated purpose is "to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks."  Having incorporated 22 agencies under its control, DHS has an annual budget of $60 billion, and has been repeatedly criticized for excessive waste and inefficiency.  In 2008, for example, a congressional subcommittee estimated DHS had wasted roughly $15 billion in failed contracts.  It also came under fire for $2 billion of waste and fraud after GAO audits uncovered misuse of government credit cards by DHS employees.

As Trevor Timm writes in the Guardian, DHS is a "behemoth and a bureaucratic nightmare" operating "under one umbrella of dysfunction and secrecy."  Timm points out a few of the myriad of concerns:
  •  DHS “fusion centers" are supposed to be terrorism prevention and response centers but are "little more than spying hubs that vacuum up information from federal and local authorities and store it for indefinite amounts of time. A scathing Senate report on the centers, which have cost the DHS at least $1.4 billion dollars, concluded that they produce 'predominantly useless information'" and "also '[run] afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties' and are 'possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.'”
  • DHS dispenses millions of dollars in military gear to local police "that they can barely account for, along with high-tech spying equipment used for mass surveillance of innocent citizens."
  • DHS has its own Predator drones program "that they fly along the US border" and according to a government report it has been derided as "almost entirely ineffective and a giant waste of money" not to mention "the alarming privacy concerns of having sophisticated spying machines constantly flying over large parts of the country."
It may be beneficial politically in the short term for Democrats to gloat over Republicans apparently putting the nation at risk while they have their temper tantrum over immigration, but it might be more productive to take this as an opportunity to consider whether defunding the agency is really such a bad idea.


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