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From Al Qaeda to QAnon: How the Department of Homeland Security has had to evolve since 9/11

The current head of DHS and two of his predecessors reflect on how the agency has changed in 20 years and whether it's up to fighting domestic extremism.

WASHINGTON — When then-President George W. Bush commissioned the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was clear about the new agency’s top goal — to be “one department whose primary mission is to protect the American homeland.” In other words, to prevent another foreign attack on American soil.

Twenty years after the attacks, DHS is now the third-largest federal agency, with nearly 230,000 employees, and is most visible for its role in enforcing immigration laws at the southern border.

This week, two former DHS secretaries and current Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reflected on the agency’s evolution and whether the agency formed in the wake of 9/11 was built to respond to threats such as cyber intrusion and domestic violent extremism, which they say now eclipse the threat of foreign terrorist organizations.

Michael Chertoff served as DHS secretary from 2005 to 2009 under Bush. He was the second person to hold the post, and in those early years, he recalls, “we had to build pretty much from scratch.”

He arrived less than two years after the creation of DHS and shortly before Hurricane Katrina would expose the shortcomings of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which had just become part of the newly formed agency.

Chertoff said they had to work to “flatten” the agency, so that groups once separated would talk to one another, and he retooled FEMA to be more than an aid organization in the wake of disasters, and instead one focused on preparedness ahead of time.

Under Chertoff, DHS was still mainly focused on foreign threats. He was responsible for imposing the liquid limits on airplanes in response to intelligence DHS gathered about foreign terrorists plotting to blow up planes with what would be made to look like sports drinks.

“I have to say, during my tenure the homegrown terrorism threat was not really a big concern. We didn’t even have any incidents of inspired terrorism, which later came up," said Chertoff, meaning lone attackers radicalized by the internet. " We were mostly concerned with people coming in from overseas."

Under the Bush administration, the size of Customs and Border Protection doubled, reaching 20,000, about one-third of what it is today. But Chertoff said the Trump administration “undercut” DHS by being too focused on what he considers “cruel” immigration policies while downplaying the emerging threat of domestic violent extremists.

“It’s also clear that not only was there an incessant focus on immigration, but the strategy was to be as cruel as possible,” Chertoff said.

“The [Trump] administration pushed back on any effort to call out domestic extremists, and in fact, Trump encouraged extremists by speaking about what great people they are.”

When criticized by former DHS officials for not doing enough to prevent to the Jan 6 riots earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Trump administration’s DHS said at the time: “We are working closely with our partners. We are sharing information and we are monitoring the overall security environment for possible threats.”

Six people served as confirmed or acting secretaries of DHS under President Donald Trump.

Jeh Johnson served as DHS secretary from 2013 to 2017 under President Barack Obama.

Johnson said when Congress created DHS, “in some respects they went too far and in some respects they didn’t go far enough.”

“The view at the time was that terrorism was an extraterritorial threat from beyond our borders, and therefore if we consolidate into one large cabinet department, the regulation of all the ways someone can enter this country — land, sea and air — we will have dealt with the terrorist threat most effectively,” he said.

But now, Johnson says that model is outdated.

“The principal terrorist threat to our homeland is now domestic based. And they’re not a whole lot of DHS cops running around the interior looking for terrorists,” Johnson said.

In part, that is because the statute did not give DHS the authority to investigate and prosecute Americans inside the country; that still falls to the FBI and Justice Department. As a result, Johnson said, DHS has become most consumed with enforcing immigration laws.

“We don’t always like to acknowledge that, but the reality is that the principle focus day to day of the secretary of homeland security and the senior leadership of DHS is the immigration mission,” Johnson said.

And, due to the politically polarizing nature of immigration, for the leaders at DHS, “no matter what you do, somebody’s going to be mad at you.”

Although DHS does allocate grants toward studying, preventing and combating domestic terrorism, “the underlying premise for the counterterrorism mission of DHS is now outdated,” Johnson said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed on Feb. 2, less than one month after the violent attack by domestic rioters on the U.S. Capitol.

Mayorkas disagrees that the DHS model for preventing terrorism is outdated and limits its ability to combat domestic violent extremists.

“I think that local communities are the most effective mechanism to address the domestic threat,” Mayorkas said. He pointed to family members, girlfriends and other community members who recognized strange behavior in people they knew before they went on to commit an act of violence.

Unlike the Obama administration, which led its Countering Violent Extremism effort primarily through U.S. attorneys offices, which presented “challenges in gaining the communities’ trust,” the Biden administration is leaning more heavily on local communities to do the work, Mayorkas said.

Shortly after becoming secretary, Mayorkas announced grants to state and local governments that required at least $77 million of funds allocated to be spent preventing domestic violent extremism.

“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and quite frankly for probably 10 years thereafter, the primary area of concern was the foreign terrorist threat," said Mayorkas, "the individual who would seek to come to the United States to do us tremendous harm.”

After that, the threat changed, not because the foreign threat disappeared but because another one emerged: the homegrown violent extremist — as Mayorkas described it, “The individual who was already resident in the United States who was radicalized by a foreign terrorist organization.”

Now, the threat has changed again, as evidenced by the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol by hundreds of U.S. citizens with no apparent connection to foreign terrorist ideologies.

“What we are speaking of now are individuals in the United States who are driven to violence born of a an ideology of hate or false narratives that are propagated on social media or other platforms,” he said.

On top of that threat, today’s DHS is also contending with cyber and ransomware attacks, a 20-year high in southern border immigration traffic, more frequent and more deadly natural disasters while taking charge in the resettlement of what will be an estimated than 65,000 vulnerable Afghans fleeing their country after the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

Leading up to the twentieth anniversary of Sept. 11, Mayorkas says he has been reflecting on “how much the threat landscape has changed over the last 20 years.”