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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: April 7, 2006 06:25 PM

Department of Homeland Security: As Our Name Says, "Security" Comes Last


With two recent arrests of Department of Homeland Security officials for sex crimes against teenage girls, it has been repeatedly noted how difficult it is to know the private life of any employee, and that makes it near-impossible to weed out such problems before they occur.

There's no question this is true. It's also the same, equally-true explanation given after the arrest of the White House domestic policy advisor on March 9 for felony theft.

(It will probably be the same explanation given by the President himself for authorizing Lewis Libby to divulge previously-classified secrets.)

But in discussions about this most-recent arrest within DHS, an important issue has been glossed over.

One issue is that the Department official gave his place of employment, job title, photograph and ID tags to the supposed-child (actually an undercover officer). The security breach is, of course, profound, since it's not known who else such information was ever divulged to. But that's not the important issue. It's worse.

Because another problem is how it's precisely such sex scandals that put national security officials in a position to be blackmailed. That's what makes figuring how to weed out such things so essential. But that's not the issue, either. Really, it's worse.

The issue, the really big problem is that some of these criminal contacts were done on his office computer.

It's well-recognized, albeit controversial, that companies have the right to check up on their employees' computer use while at work. If Jiffy Lube can do it - if Fred's Tasty Donuts can do it - you'd sure think that the Department of Homeland Security should be able to figure out how to do it.

But here's a man, right under their nose - in fact, directly inside their nose - their deputy press secretary, using his office computer to solicit a child for sex, giving out his office phone number and ID records. And the DHS didn't even know about it.

(This is granting them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't know, rather than they did know but didn't do anything about it.)

Whether one likes employers spying on their employees is a separate matter. But we can probably agree that if anyone in the entire world has the right to spy on its own employees - and the technical ability to do so - it's the government department charged with overseeing the security of the entire nation.

And if they couldn't figure out how to do it, someone must have the number of the NSA. They've got tapping civilians down pat, surely they could have helped out with the phones of their fellow government officials.

It's a puzzlement.

Then again, keep in mind that the DHS is the same department that oversees FEMA, which did such a bang-up job keeping the city of New Orleans from being wiped off the map.

And they're the same department who only weeks ago got an "F" for computer security in case of a major cyber-attack, for the third year in a row.

So, maybe this "lapse" isn't so surprising. Maybe it's not a case of being unable to weed out an employee's personal problems at all. Maybe it's something more simple. Maybe it's just that they are really screwed up over there.

For anyone willing to whitewash this and bemoan the criticism, even to minimize what slimy events these most recent arrests are about because, hey, we're dealing with flawed humans - keep in mind just one thing: this is the Department of Homeland Security.

Their sole directive is to keep the entire nation secure. The country has made clear how critical this is to them. We've authorized a war. Two wars, in fact. We've created a Patriot Act that dances around civil liberties. We've given a pass to domestic spying. We've closed our eyes to torturing prisoners. We've allowed the suspension of habeas corpus for enemy combatants. For better or worse, all because we think this issue of national security is Really Important.

And because of this, at the very heart of it, we formed a Department of Homeland Security.

Yes, problems are going to happen. Yes, people will fall through the cracks.

But this is the Department of Homeland Security -- and they keep leaving their front door open. And then tack up directions to the place all around town on telephone polls.

Sometimes, you just expect to hear that there's a sign on the door, "Beer is in the fridge."