Mission creep at the Department of Homeland Security threatens liberty and free speech

George W. Bush broke the country.

Following the horrific attacks on 9/11, President Bush’s response had horrific consequences. You know about the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. To those debacles we can add the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which has now been turned against the American people.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Bush established the White House Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council. The following June, he proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

“The changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons,” the 29-page proposal stated. “Today no one single government agency has homeland security as its primary mission. In fact, responsibilities for homeland security are dispersed among more than 100 different government organizations.” That last sentence was underlined for emphasis.

Bush proposed a “single, unified homeland security structure.” He said it “would make Americans safer” (underlined again) because it would have, among other things, “one department to synthesize and analyze homeland security intelligence from multiple sources” and “one department to coordinate our efforts to protect the American people against bioterrorism and other weapons of mass destruction.”

To fight these threats, DHS “would set national policy and establish guidelines for state and local governments” and “direct exercises and drills.” And to make sure our “intelligence and threat analysis” stayed on top of it, DHS would “fuse and analyze information pertaining to threats to the homeland from multiple sources.” One “important partner” in these efforts would be the “newly formed FBI Office of Intelligence.”

What could possibly go wrong?

There isn’t enough space in this column to list all of it, so let’s jump ahead to the latest outrage: revelations that in the name of keeping the homeland safe, DHS has been surveilling Americans’ online communications and pressuring tech companies to censor anything that the department doesn’t like.

On Oct. 31, The Intercept published an investigative report on how the Department of Homeland Security is “quietly broadening its efforts to curb speech it considers dangerous.”

Let’s stop here for just a moment to remember that the Constitution specifically and emphatically prohibits the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And here’s an excerpt from a May 17, 2019, memo from DHS Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan to “All DHS Employees”: “Under the Privacy Act of 1974, all DHS personnel are prohibited from maintaining records that describe how a U.S. citizen or alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence exercises his or her First Amendment rights ‘unless expressly authorized by statute or by the individual about whom the record is maintained or unless pertinent to and within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity.’”

The government can’t pass judgment on the content of speech and arrange to have it censored. The Constitution does not allow the Department of Homeland Security to decide that some people’s words or illustrations or savagely funny jokes are a danger to the homeland and therefore must be removed from the public square. People in the United States have the right to criticize and contradict the government without having DHS open a file on them.

But that’s what’s happening. The Intercept is reporting, based on “years of internal DHS memos, emails and documents — obtained via leaks and an ongoing lawsuit, as well as public documents” that DHS has pivoted “to monitoring social media now that its original mandate — the war on terror — has been wound down.”

This mission creep includes targeting “inaccurate information” posted online, and working directly with tech platforms to “streamline takedown requests.” Some of the topics DHS is watching: “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

In February of this year, Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, formerly a DHS official, texted DHS director Jen Easterly to whine that tech platforms were reluctant to play ball. “Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t,” he wrote, “It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain.”

The Intercept report presents a vivid picture of the tone of such conversations. In notes of a March meeting between FBI official Laura Dehmlow and senior executives from Twitter and JP Morgan Chase, Dehmlow stressed that “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.”

The pressure on tech companies included regular meetings with government officials to discuss information disseminated on their platforms. “Prior to the 2020 election,” The Intercept reports, “tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, Wikipedia, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Verizon Media met on a monthly basis with the FBI” and other government representatives.

And all of it was kept secret from the American people in the name of national security.

DHS’ creeping mission of information control is part of the story of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after it was created, the Department of Homeland Security came up with a structure and an enforcement mechanism to control state and local government agencies, including health departments.

In March 2004, DHS introduced the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, calling it “the first-ever standardized approach to incident management and response.” The NIMS framework consisted of “organizational structures, processes and procedures” to “enable responders at all levels to work together more effectively and efficiently to manage domestic incidents no matter what the cause, size or complexity.”

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Beginning in fiscal year 2005, adoption of NIMS was “a condition for the receipt of federal preparedness funds, including grants, contracts and other activities.”

Any local government agency that failed to comply with the DHS-directed plan risked losing funding. That’s a perfect structure for imposing a flawed judgment on the whole country simultaneously, with secret DHS censorship of contrary views to prevent errors from being exposed, discussed and corrected.

The Department of Homeland Security was one of George W. Bush’s big mistakes. Let’s put those 100 government departments back where we found them.

Write or follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley

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