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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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DHS Redux

A young doctor told me a story about his conversation with a nurse.

He corrected her when she said President Obama is a Muslim.

She answered, "You can't be sure of anything these days."

She also blamed the rise of the group Islamic State on Obama. She was particularly concerned that they were killing Christians, to the exclusion of the many Muslims who have also been slaughtered.

And she said she would still pray for the president because he's lost his mind.

It seems surprising that a person with such views works as a nurse, a job that requires a high degree of rational thought, the ability to observe and record accurately and a substantial amount of empathy.

The resident doctor also wondered what she was doing in a liberal college town.

I answered that there are an awful lot of people out there like the nurse, and they are electing people to Congress.

And those representatives are causing a ruckus.

When I saw a flash story from the L.A. Times last week, saying the bill to fund the nation's domestic security agency had failed, I forwarded the story to another editor, saying, "I knew they couldn't govern."

He answered with a quote from Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat whose district runs along the border with Mexico. "The bullet must get bit by Boehner."

The full weight of the failed vote last week fell entirely on the Republicans, who were unable to hold in line a fractious group of representatives calling themselves the Freedom Council.

It was portrayed by TV's talking heads as a vote that would lower the nation's guard against domestic terror plots, and the Republican majority was seen as so divided and incompetent that the nation was being put at risk.

Today, the DHS funding bill was passed by the Republican leadership working with Democrats, rejecting the conservatives who wanted to attack new immigration regulations through the funding process.

But as the story has morphed, I realized I had never been clear on DHS's role in government.

According to its webpage, it is supposed to "prevent attacks and protect Americans on land, sea and air."

But the fight against domestic terror plots remains primarily in the hands of the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department. And then attacks from "land, sea and air" would normally fall within the province of the Defense Department.

A photo can tell you so much more than words. A photo posted on the DHS site during the funding fight showed 10 officials including director Jeh Johnson at a press conference.

But the soft faces in that photo didn't look like any federal counter-terrorism folks I've seen. They looked like local policemen. Covering federal trials, including those involving terror threats, I have seen plenty of FBI agents and they often look a lot like the prosecutors themselves, in trim suits, fit, with the generally mien of college grads.

A closer look at the titles under the photo showed they were indeed policemen, firemen and FEMA's chief.

That's what DHS really is, a funding source for equipment for local police and fire departments, as well as the umbrella for disaster and immigration agencies, one formerly independent, the other formerly within Justice.

For some reason, there was not a single immigration official in the photo.

Going back in time a bit, you can see that the creation of the department in 2002 was in part an exercise in political propaganda. It was proposed in the wake of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center by a Texas Republican from the panhandle and pushed along by George W. Bush who said, "We're fighting to secure freedom in the homeland."

The etymology of the word "homeland" shows that it represented a conscious shift by Bush and his spokespeople away from the traditional nouns for our country, "nation" and "republic," and the older lexicon's adjective for internal matters, "domestic."

The creation of DHS was part of the Bush reaction to the attack that fundamentally transformed much of the way the federal government is organized, including a mushrooming of the intelligence agencies, overlapping spying operations, renditions, secret prisons, torture, and the rise of what many call "the deep state," classified operations that can only be discerned as an outline under a blanket of secrecy, formed by the many instances where public examination by Congress or the federal courts has been defeated.

The department that Bush created is also expensive, costing roughly $65 billion a year.

Perhaps, in the end, our democratic republic's domestic matters might be better served undoing this part of the George W. legacy. The immigration service could return to Justice where the level of arbitrary power currently exercised by immigration officials might be at least partially curtailed. And FEMA could go back to being a competent, independent agency like it was for a quarter century before Bush got his hands on it.

Local police and fire could be funded as they have traditionally been, through state and local funds, with federal grants through the Justice Department.

But alas, it is not to be.

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