Since early July, federal agents in military-style uniforms have waged battle against protesters in Portland, Oregon, using tear gas and nonlethal munitions.Photograph by Mason Trinca / NYT / Redux
In a press conference on Tuesday, Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, responded to media reports that unidentified federal agents using unmarked vehicles have been arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon. Since early July, men in military-style uniforms have waged battle against protesters there, using tear gas and nonlethal munitions; video and photographs coming out of Portland have shown scenes of urban warfare, with what looks like a regular army moving on unarmed protesters night after night. On behalf of the D.H.S. and its uniformed services, Wolf claimed responsibility for the armed presence in Portland. He asserted that his agency was doing exactly what it was created to do. He was right.
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. The proposal for creating the department presented hypothetical examples of failures to coördinate among different agencies. When a ship sailed into U.S. waters, for instance, the Coast Guard had the power to stop it for inspection, but it was up to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deal with the people on board, and up to Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Agriculture to stop any dangerous or illegal cargo. The examples made D.H.S. seem like something that should exist. That logic held, though, only if you thought about travel, immigration, and trade primarily as security concerns. There are countries that think like that. I grew up in one—it was called the Soviet Union, and it had an agency, the Committee for State Security (K.G.B.), which had its tentacles in every area of society.
The creation of the D.H.S. marked a shift in the way that Americans think and talk about the country, and about people. Four years ago, in an essay for the Times Magazine, the journalist James Traub traced the appearance and evolution of the word “homeland” in American language. “The rise of ‘homeland’ … tracks the rise of the national sense of vulnerability,” Traub wrote. “As we use it now, ‘homeland’ means ‘the country insofar as it is endangered.’ ” The word had surfaced in 1997, in a Pentagon report warning that the singular threat to U.S. security, which the Soviet Union once posed, had been replaced by a diffuse threat from different sources. By 2001, “homeland” had sudden traction—it was a word that had found its meaning. By the time Traub was writing, in 2016, all of the contenders for the Republican nomination for President—a group in which Donald Trump may have still seemed an outlier—were trafficking in fear for the land. “Homeland” is also a nativist term: it refers to the country where you were born, or else it comes with the qualifier “adopted,” which suggests that your claim to the homeland is contingent. (Sure enough, under Trump, the federal government has moved toward seeing naturalized citizenship as revocable.)
“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”; one hypothetical example of an invisible enemy was “a non-citizen that intends to enter our nation and attack one of our chemical facilities.” 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. The D.H.S. began with mobilizing against the foreign-born, via Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service). The logic of the secret police, however, dictates that it perpetually has to look in new places for threats.
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.” Bush’s words echoed the promise that fuelled Vladimir Putin’s rise in Russia. In a speech that brought him to sudden prominence, in 1999, the former K.G.B. colonel promised to “hunt down” terrorists and “snuff them out in the outhouse,” if that’s where they happened to be found. The secret police, even when it looks and appears to act like an army, always has a single individual as its target. Its goal is to make a person, alone, face the might of the state.
In Portland, the men in military-style uniforms have been picking up and detaining individuals while they are walking alone, often after a protest ends. At the press conference on Tuesday, Wolf owned the tactic of tracking people down and picking them up at some distance from protests. “When you have five hundred, six hundred violent individuals, violent criminals across the street from you, trying to inflict harm on your property and at law-enforcement officers … we don’t go into that crowd,” he said. “We don’t try to go into a violent crowd of four hundred people and try to arrest people—that’s dangerous.” Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, explained that his troops were using unmarked vehicles because police vehicles in other cities had been attacked by protesters; similarly, he said, his men didn’t have their names on their uniforms for fear of attacks on their homes and families. The C.B.P. is the largest law-enforcement agency in the country. Its leader—who at the same briefing stated that his troops are highly trained and experienced in putting down riots—and his boss, Chad Wolf, were telling the nation that they are terrified of the protesters. These men represent a government agency born of fear. Their tactics are designed to engender an equal amount of fear in the people they see as their enemies. The secret police is always a terror-production machine.
Morgan has been running the C.B.P. since July of last year; Wolf has been at the head of the D.H.S. since November. Both men have the word “acting” before their titles, because neither has been confirmed by the Senate. A recent lawsuit filed by advocates for asylum seekers alleges that Wolf is occupying his post illegally, because a federal statute called the Vacancies Act places a two-hundred-and-ten-day limit on the tenure of an “acting” officer. The Stanford law professor Anne Joseph O’Connell, who has written on Trump’s use of “acting” officials—he has employed more of them, and for longer, than past Presidents—told me via e-mail that Wolf’s appointment was made in violation of a different federal statute, the Homeland Security Act. (The same point has been raised by top congressional Democrats, who last year called for an emergency review of D.H.S. appointments.) Under the Vacancies Act, some actions of an illegitimately appointed secretary would be null and void. No one knows, however, how this restriction could be enforced, or what the consequences might be.
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. What we are also seeing is a perfect storm of fear: the legacy of fear cultivated in the wake of 9/11, and the fear that Trump campaigned on in 2016 and continues to campaign on now.