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Editorial: Homeland’s ‘mission creep’ works on 3 levels

Nothing says America won’t let the terrorists win like busting pickpockets in the Land of Enchantment.

Or tracking down fraudulent Native American art.

Or training Albuquerque strippers how to recognize sex trafficking.

Or sending armored personnel carriers to the South Valley.

Welcome to the 2014 version of your U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A three-part series by Journal Washington Bureau reporter Michael Coleman makes clear that if there is a poster child for mission creep, Homeland Security is it. And unfortunately, “creep” accurately describes:

1. the department’s expanding mission since 2002,

2. its stealthy reach into local law enforcement jurisdictions, and

3. its opaque accountability and visible heavy hand.

Homeland Security was created after terrorists slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, with the clear objective “to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States.”

And how, exactly, does that apply to pickpockets, fake Indian art, sex trafficking and local SWAT callouts?

On the local law enforcement receiving end there’s likely the desire to be involved, to feel you are doing something for national security, to get additional manpower in a tough economy along with really cool free stuff to scare bad guys and impress civilians.

On the federal giving end it’s more, well, creepy.

Because Homeland’s expansion is resulting in what Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., have called “Safety at Any Price,” with billions spent on duplication and “waste, inefficiency and a false sense of security.” In what former Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge calls “an appearance that you’re quasi-military. That’s not who we are in this country.” And in a law-enforcement agency that has so many masters – more than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees – it essentially has none.

Since its inception the department has grown from 180,000 full-time workers to 240,000 employees, from a budget of $29 billion to $61 billion. Wendell Oliver, a retired Virginia police officer, university teacher and author of two textbooks on homeland security, explains that instead of providing real safety from terror plots, all those thousands of people and billions of dollars “have not solved or prevented any terrorist acts in the United States. … But there is also no evidence they have necessarily done any great harm – other than waste money.”

Unfortunately, we are talking about tax dollars that are supposed to be directed at shutting down terrorist threats, not medical residents taking the Hippocratic oath.

Although the department is the third-largest agency in the federal government, behind only the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, Homeland officials can’t provide a real paper trail on where all that money has gone and won’t comment on how many of its personnel are deployed where. This lack of transparency from an agency created to protect the American way of life is astounding.

So is its reach.

Retired Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Dan Klein says “it seems like Homeland Security is taking more of a local law enforcement role. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but at least here, we are moving more toward a national police force. Homeland Security is involved with a lot of little things around town. Somebody in Washington needs to call a time-out.”

That somebody is Congress, which created and oversees the department. New Mexico’s delegation needs to take a serious look at what was designed to target a specific threat and is instead becoming a threat in itself.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.