The Obama administration is working to expand the controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) beyond its traditional role of fighting terrorism, giving the enforcement agency broad powers over cybercrime, disease control, immigration enforcement and other areas of American life.
The proposed changes could turn DHS into a powerful national police agency with broad control — a move that some civil libertarians worry could become an “American Gestapo.”
White House officials outlined the proposed changes in a document called the “Quadrennial Homeland Security Review,” delivered to Congress recently but embargoed for public release.
The review expands the DHS role from enforcing four areas of terrorism-related activities to 14 areas that extend beyond terror threats and allows the department to become the primary federal agency when dealing with disaster relief, computer crime, “transnational crime,” border control, pandemics and other non-terror activities.
“Homeland security will only be optimized when we fully leverage the
distributed and decentralized nature of the entire enterprise in the
pursuit of our common goals,” homeland security Janet Napolitano writes in the cover letter that accompanied the report to Congress.
Former President George W. Bush created DHS in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the agency quickly grew into the nation’s largest federal bureaucracy. DHS quickly came under scrutiny for its broad powers that circumvented Constitutional safeguards of individual liberty.
As a candidate for President, Obama criticized the many excesses of the Bush administration in the so-called “war on terror” but at President Obama has expanded the role of agencies like DHS and the use of “warrantless wiretaps” to snoop into the lives of ordinary Americans. The President also backed away from promises to curtail abuses under the USA Patriot Act and now supports expanded the Constitutional threats posed by the controversial laws.
Civil libertarians have filed numerous lawsuits against DHS, seeking access to records on the agency’s intrusive questioning and search of U.S. travelers and for intruding more and more into the privacy of Americans.
“When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and
demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free
expression and privacy disappear at our nation’s doorstep,” says Sharin Sinnar, a staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, a San Francisco-based group that joined in one lawsuit..
But Obama’s proposed expansion of powers of DHS is already drawing praise from the right wing. James Jay Califano, homeland security expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation, calls the proposals “an incredible achievement.”