It is painfully ironic that that the federal agency created to keep the United States safe after the Sept. 11 attacks now targets Americans. In 2002, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security with a mandate to prevent more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Homeland Security quickly rose to rival other massive Washington bureaucracies, absorbing such disparate agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection.
Unlike the limits on the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Pentagon, however, Homeland Security was designed to have domestic police powers from the start. It is its forces that have made up the bulk of federal agents sent by the White House to Portland, Ore., to tamp down protests. Homeland Security has essentially become President Trump’s personal shock troops, stripping their uniforms of identifying insignias, shooting at protesters, scooping citizens off streets, and bundling them away in unmarked vans amid billows of tear gas. Federal marshals from the Justice Department as well have been sent into Portland to confront protesters. This is all over the objections of the city and state’s top elected officials. The president has also threatened to send federal agents to other U.S. cities.
Commentators on the left have pointed out rightly that Customs and Immigration officers have a long tradition of extra-legal detentions — of noncitizens and people of color, as opposed to the mostly white Portland crowds. This is almost entirely without oversight, thanks to Congress, which failed to create adequate safeguards against the agency’s misuse.
The threat to public property in Portland has been greatly exaggerated for political ends. The president, in his “American carnage” inaugural address, tried to paint himself as a kind of sole savior. Now, down in the polls against his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, he is desperate and willing to create chaos if he has to. Mr. Trump also is eager to distract his core supporters from the Covid-19 crisis, which his administration, and he personally, allowed to spread out of control. Don’t think the action in Portland is for show: The administration plans to keep its agents there at least until mid-October — when millions of Americans are expected to fill out absentee ballots.
A review by the Justice Department announced last week is a start. It will be the responsibility of Congress to see that no president can ever again unleash the unlimited power of the federal government against its own people.