Commentary

Instead of Confirming Jeh Johnson, Senate Should Abolish Homeland Security

More than three months after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced her departure, President Obama finally nominated her replacement, former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman is cautiously optimistic about the nominee because the former DoD general counsel was often a voice of restraint in the administration’s national security debates.

Ackerman says Johnson’s selection “may signal a shift for an agency whose value is questioned by many in the U.S.” Johnson “could be an agent of change.”

The problems at DHS are far too deep to be solved with a dollop of restraint and better management practices.”

Meh. It’s true that Johnson has made some agreeable noises about the dangers of perpetual war; but he’s also a key legal architect of the administration’s drone wars and a defender of targeting American citizens abroad.

It’s unclear — at best he’d be a moderating influence at a department with an unhealthy interest in domestic drones.

More to the point, the problems at DHS are far too deep to be solved with a dollop of restraint and better management practices.

From its inception, the agency has operated as something akin to a federal Department of Dystopia, encouraging the proliferation of surveillance cameras, armed personnel carriers and police drones across Main Street America with some $35 billion in Homeland Security grants.

All of which suggests some possible questions for Johnson at his confirmation hearing:

Mr. Johnson, in a 2011 speech at the Heritage Foundation, you worried about “expecting the U.S. military to extend its powerful reach into areas traditionally reserved for civilian law enforcement in this country.”

Isn’t it equally troubling that with DHS’s help, local police departments “are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones”?

That’s from a report by Sen. Tom Coburn last December, which notes that Fargo, N.D., a city that’s “averaged fewer than two homicides per year since 2005,” got a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret,” while Montgomery County in Texas became the proud owner of a new $300,000 Vanguard ShadowHawk drone, courtesy of DHS.

Do you think such expenditures are wise or necessary — and if not, will you put an end to them?

Last year, Wired reported DHS’s interest in a drone-ready “Panopticamera” capable of total surveillance over up to four square miles and “automated, real-time, motion detection capability that cues a spotter Imager for target identification.”

If, as you told Heritage, we should avoid “over-militarizing” the fight against terrorism, particularly on the home front, then why is DHS exploring the deployment of battlefield surveillance technology at home?

The Congressional Research Service noted last January that “10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government does not have a single definition for homeland security.”

Do you agree with your predecessor, who said having a definition would “probably be nice, but it doesn’t really matter” in practice?

Mission creep seems to be a burgeoning problem at DHS, which last month announced the launch of “a new smartphone app designed to seek the public’s help with fugitive and unknown suspect child predators.”

A Homeland Security spokesman claimed that “with one touch, they can be sending us an email about suspicious activity or calling us and letting us know where someone might be.”

What is your definition of “homeland security”? What, if anything, does it exclude?

In a speech at Oxford University last November, Johnson envisioned an eventual end to the war on terror: “We must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the new normal.”

But the agency he seeks to lead depends on normalizing an atmosphere of permanent emergency. Instead of hoping he’ll “fix” that, we’d do better to abolish his job.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.