DHS Turn Out To Be The Secret Police? Who Knew?

I mean, other than anyone who’s studied the history of secret police forces or simply did a rigorous threat modeling of what was likely to go wrong with the kind of powers and mission given to the Department of Homeland Security.

Which apparently does not include the most liberal Senator of recent years (and, obviously, more timorous and less liberal Democratic Senators). From the “well, duh” files of The Washington Post, we have: Barbara Boxer: DHS was a mistake. I regret voting for it. The piece is full of ass-covering and retroactive attempts by Boxer to have it both ways. Even as Boxer leads up with the headline-grabbing “I was wrong” (a rarity for politicians), by the end of her self-justifying piece the reader is left with the impression that Boxer likely believes herself “wrong” only in the context of having misjudged how the powers being vested in this new and creepily-named agency might be misused:

I never imagined that a president would use unconfirmed puppets like acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, to terrorize our own citizens in our own country. Our goal then had been to protect our own people, not hurt them, not harm them, not hunt them down on the streets of Portland or any other city.

The rest of the piece is a tedious and tawdry enumeration of the internal (never voiced) misgivings Boxer had, and the (limited, ineffective, performative or never-completed) actions she took as a result. You know, before she straight-up voted to create DHS (“The World Trade Center collapsed in the city where I was born.
That was enough to get my yes vote”). 

But the money quote in Boxer’s piece was those three little words “I never imagined!” Unfortunately, some version of that very quote is a long-standing favorite of Democratic politicians who abet authoritarianism, war and other atrocious policies by voting for them, then only later exclaiming “who could have known?” 

Hillary Clinton was famously (and properly) castigated for her vote in favor of our war-of-choice against the sovereign nation of Iraq. Six years later, as she sought the Democratic nomination for the Presidency the first time in 2008, she could not even bring herself to say she had been wrong, telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press instead, after he pointed out very reasonably (not to mention obviously) that the literal name of the resolution she voted for was the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002:

“We can have this Jesuitical argument about what exactly was meant. But when Chuck Hagel, who helped to draft the resolution said, ‘It was not a vote for war,’ What I was told directly by the White House in response to my question, ‘If you are given this authority, will you put the inspectors in and permit them to finish their job,’ I was told that’s exactly what we intended to do.“

It was not until eight years later, after Clinton had had plenty of time to ruminate on her stinging primary defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, who could point to a very visible record of having opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, that she began to moderate her statements — one presumes out of a sense of necessity; that this had been a linchpin of her defeat last time, and the public had not forgotten: 

“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton told reporters at an event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, adding that “what we now see is a very different and very dangerous situation.”

The book she refers to there is her Hard Choices. It was written in 2014…probably right around the time a veteran politico with a national profile would start getting ducks in a row for a potential presidential run. Go figure.

What about Joe Biden? He voted in favor of the Iraq war as well, and was by insider accounts one of the staunchest Democratic proponents of “regime change” in Iraq. After things went sideways, in 2004, Biden was still saying things like he said in this commencement speech to the University of Delaware Class of 2004: 

We had to go into Iraq, not because Saddam was part of Al Qaeda, there was no evidence of that, not because he possessed nuclear weapons or because he posed an imminent threat to the United States, there was no evidence of that. The legitimate reason for going into Iraq, was he violated every single commitment he made and warranted being taken down. And the international community and us had a right to respond.

Doesn’t sound like a man who thinks there was anything wrong with his vote, except – as Boxer echoes today – all the bad things that were done with it. And again, like magic!, it isn’t until sixteen years later when you see Biden running for President, that you hear a slightly different story, like the one he told Lawrence O’Donnell in January of this year when Bernie Sanders was still the frontrunner in the 2020 primary:

Biden went on to admit that it “was a mistake” to take the “word of a president who said he wasn’t going to go to war and this is a way to avoid going to war.” 

Here again, from Clinton to Biden to Boxer, more of a non-apology than an actual apology. Let’s leave aside the fact that I think there’s ample evidence both Clinton and Biden were on board with the war and only regret the damage their atrocious votes did to their careers and reputations. Let’s even leave aside the fact that as recently as a few months ago, Joe Biden was still suggesting he’d be open to choosing a GOP running mate. Instead, let’s just focus on these non-pologies that what Democratic heavyweights with their serial “oopsies” are really sorry for is the bad judgment of trusting the Republicans. That if they’d only known what no one could have known at the time, they might have – no, gosh darn it, would have – voted differently. 

Is it true? 

It’s a matter of unprovable speculation whether, armed with different knowledge, any one particular legislator would’ve cast a different vote on a pivotal issue. But what’s easier to assess without guesswork is whether anyone could’ve known at the time. Because that’s ultimately the most important question for a Senator or a President or a congressperson – getting it right at the time, not being grudgingly willing to apologize for having gotten it wrong afterwards.

The Iraq War decisions are old hat at this point; I’ll leave Tim Russert with the last word there: when you vote for something that’s literally titled Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq, failure to take into account the fact that war – under the terms of what you voted for – might be an immediate outcome, is lose-your-seat-worthy malpractice…or a clear indication that you were in favor of such a war and looking for a fig leaf of deniability should things go south.

In the case of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, it’s much the same, as this piece in The New Yorker makes clear. The author is Masha Gessen, who grew up in Soviet Russia and has written multiple books on authoritarian overreach:

The rationale for the creation of the D.H.S., as laid out by the George W. Bush Administration, was that the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that could have stopped the 9/11 attacks were spread out among many government agencies, with no single body in charge of fighting terrorism.

Anyone who lived through those years and was politically aware remembers these arguments. 9/11 broke our brains – many of us – and made things that would’ve seemed just a year or two earlier like insane ideas, worth considering. But, Gessen continues,

“Homeland” is an anxious, combative word: it denotes a place under assault, in need of aggressive defense from shape-shifting dangers. The original proposal for the D.H.S. described the agency as “a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons” […] The nation used to protect itself against other nations and their hostile military forces, but now it had to fear individuals. This is the premise on which secret police forces are built. Their stated purpose is to find danger where normal human activity appears to be taking place. 

Just so. And Gessen notes:

When Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, in November of 2002, bringing the D.H.S. into existence, he touted it as “the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since Harry Truman signed the National Security Act,” and spoke of “ruthless killers who move and plot in shadows.” He promised, “We’re on the hunt. One person at a time.”

All of which brings us to Donald Trump sending un-badged federal goons in unmarked vehicles to Portland, Oregon. Not Abbotabad, Pakistan or Mosul, Iraq. Portland. Why? Because Trump is a lunatic who believes citizens who oppose him are literally enemies. The problem is only partially that he was elected. It’s also that the laws our supposedly wise and deliberative legislators put into place assumed and in too many cases were based on, the notion that such a person could never hold power, or that the people who did ascend to power just wouldn’t DO such things, i.e. – the very things that are explicitly part of the laws’ text or implicitly allowed by such laws expansiveness. 

As we learn more about what is happening in Portland—as footage of federal troops waging war on protesters floods social media, and as the President threatens to send his foot soldiers to other large cities—we are watching the perfect and perhaps inevitable combination of a domestic-security superagency and a President who rejects all mechanisms of accountability, including the Senate confirmation process.

Exactly. And too many of our Democratic lawmakers, time and again, have failed us in recognizing and preventing these possibilities. They’ve chosen to look “tough on crime” (or terrorism, or insert your word-of-choice here), figuring their vote will never come to this, and if it does, they can say “who could have known?” Like Boxer. Like Clinton. Like Biden. That’s why we continue to need better Democrats. They exist: 

And yes, any politician in the crucible of weighty decisions that must be made sometimes on short notice, is going to make mistakes. Errors in judgment, votes they wish they could do again. But we as Democrats have been making the same damned mistakes for far too long, and they’re among the worst we can make because not only do they get people killed or hurt and degrade our democratic institutions in the process, they also demoralize the electorate and perversely make it even harder to effect positive change, just as it’s needed most.