The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a rogue intelligence agency that needs to be shut down.
It’s hard to reach any other conclusion on the heels of the DHS sending federal militarized police into Portland last month, where camouflaged and unidentified officers indiscriminately sprayed protesters with teargas and rubber bullets for more than two weeks. But even after the agency reached an agreement with Portland officials to leave, virtually every day we learn more about the DHS abusing its vast surveillance powers to spy on journalists, protesters and immigrants.
The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein, who has been breaking more scoops about the DHS than almost any other reporter alive, reported earlier this week that the DHS has been gathering information on activists who the agency thinks are involved in the antifa movement in an apparent attempt to tie them to foreign powers.
An intelligence report leaked to the Nation included “a readout of these individuals’ personal information, including their social security numbers, home addresses and social media accounts, much of the data generated by the DHS’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams”. As Klippenstein notes, the attempt to tie activists to foreign powers is key, as it would open up even more invasive and warrantless surveillance methods available to the DHS. (It’s worth noting that the federal government hasn’t been able to tie any protester it has arrested to antifa, let alone a foreign power.)
Virtually every day we learn more about the DHS abusing its vast surveillance powers to spy on journalists, protesters, and immigrants
“They targeted Americans like they’re al-Qaida,” a source with knowledge of the surveillance operations told the Nation. If you think this sounds like an exaggeration, consider this: another leaked DHS document, this one posted by Lawfare’s editor-in-chief, Ben Wittes, showed that the DHS was creating “baseball cards” of arrested protesters. As the Washington Post noted: “Historically, military and intelligence officials have used such cards for biographical dossiers of suspected terrorists, including those targeted in lethal drone strikes.”
After this information was made public, DHS officials responded by compiling “intelligence dossiers” on two journalists – Wittes and the New York Times reporter Mike Baker – and distributed it to law enforcement around the country.
Those documents targeting journalists were also leaked to the press, forcing the DHS acting chief, Chad Wolf, to express regret and curtail the practice. He supposedly reassigned the DHS official in charge of the creation of the dossiers. But given how the DHS has been issuing a bevy of false statements to the public, to Congress and even judges, how can anyone trust anything they say?
In yet another story, we also learned last Friday that the DHS has been reading and analyzing the content of communications of a number of protesters, and widely sharing what they learned to other law enforcement officials. Earlier in the month, the agency had explicitly told Congress, according to the House Intelligence Committee, that the DHS “had neither collected nor exploited or analyzed information obtained from the devices or accounts of protesters or detainees”. The leaked document showing they had was created six days before that testimony.
The fact is that while the national scrutiny on their actions is new, the DHS has been engaged in similar behavior for years. In 2018, in the lead up to the midterm elections, the agency “created a secret database of activists, journalists and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports”. Many journalists covering the migrant caravan reported invasive border stops seemingly targeting them for their work – a chilling violation of press freedom that went virtually unpunished.
There are countless other examples: Immigration and Customs (Ice), under the DHS’s control and on dubious legal grounds, has been buying massive amounts of cellphone location data on the private market to help it track down immigrants. Are they also doing the same to protesters? DHS-operated drones and airplanes have been spying on protests around the country. And we know the agency has has been regularly surveilling Black Lives Matter protests since Ferguson in 2014.
The House intelligence committee has reportedly stepped up its investigations into the DHS, but how much more information do we need to know before they act?
Unfortunately, some people in the Democratic leadership – especially the House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff – have been placating and covering for intelligence agencies for the past four years, despite claiming that the Trump administration is a dire threat to the republic. Schiff even went as far as killing bipartisan surveillance reform that could have protected immigrants and DREAMers.
Congress has the opportunity to cut off funding to the DHS if it doesn’t dramatically reform. But they should go even further. It’s far past time that Congress dismantle the agency entirely. And if Schiff won’t act, Democrats should find someone who will.
Trevor Timm is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation