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‘Homeland Security’: The Trillion Dollar Concept That No One Can Define

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Posted on Feb 28, 2013
DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

By Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Imagine a labyrinthine government department so bloated that few have any clear idea of just what its countless pieces do.  Imagine that tens of billions of tax dollars are disappearing into it annually, black hole-style, since it can’t pass a congressionally mandated audit.

Now, imagine that there are two such departments, both gigantic, and you’re beginning to grasp the new, twenty-first century American security paradigm.

For decades, the Department of Defense has met this definition to a T.  Since 2003, however, it hasn’t been alone.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which celebrates its 10th birthday this March,  has grown into a miniature Pentagon. It’s supposed to be the actual “defense” department—since the Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense—and it’s rife with all the same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have decried for decades.  In other words, “homeland security” has become another obese boondoggle.

But here’s the strange thing: unlike the Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever—even though, by our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is, Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal.

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Despite sucking up a sum of money that could have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency and the very concept of “homeland security” have largely flown beneath the media radar—with disastrous results.

And that’s really no surprise, given how the DHS came into existence.

A few months before 9/11, Congress issued a national security report acknowledging that U.S. defense policy had not evolved to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.  The report recommended a “national homeland security agency” with a single leader to oversee homeland security-style initiatives across the full range of the federal government.  Although the report warned that a terrorist attack could take place on American soil, it collected dust.

Then the attack came, and lawmakers of both political parties and the American public wanted swift, decisive action.  President George W. Bush’s top officials and advisers saw in 9/11 their main chance to knock off Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  Others, who generally called themselves champions of small government, saw an opportunity to expand big government at home by increasing security spending.

Their decision to combine domestic security under one agency turned out to be like sending the Titanic into the nearest field of icebergs.

President Bush first created an Office of Homeland Security in the White House and then, with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, laid plans for a new executive department. The DHS was funded with billions of dollars and staffed with 180,000 federal employees when it opened for business on March 1, 2003.  It qualified as the largest reorganization of the federal government since 1947 when, fittingly, the Department of Defense was established.

Announcing plans for this new branch of government, President Bush made a little-known declaration of “mission accomplished” that long preceded that infamous banner strung up on an aircraft carrier to celebrate his “victory” in Iraq.  In November 2002, he said, “The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response.”


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