A special series exploring two decades of American life under the Department of Homeland Security .

When former President George W. Bush outlined his national strategy for homeland security, the pitch was simple: America was under attack by a “terrorist threat,” and the country needed to protect itself from an enemy that “takes many forms, has many places to hide, and is often invisible.”

It was in direct response to the 9/11 attack, and yet, the specifics of that terrorist threat were surprisingly vague. The imprecision could be read as paranoia. Or, more insidiously, you could see it as a way to broaden the definition of enemy to include any and all foreigners. Suddenly, immigrants were a threat to the “homeland.” And anyone else who would voice a dissenting opinion was a danger to national security. Rereading the strategic initiatives that underpin the Department of Homeland Security’s founding today, an irony in its logic becomes clear: the threat is there, and also, the threat is here.

And so, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was swiftly established as a new umbrella agency to oversee nearly two dozen existing ones. Domestically, the government’s great response to 9/11 would come to resemble a dramatic corporate reshuffling to keep Americans safe by updating an org chart. Whereas the US enforces its power abroad through military and economic strength, it enacts violence on its people domestically through a much more surreptitious form: bureaucracy.

Nearly 20 years later, the Department of Homeland Security is one of the largest agencies in the federal government. It employs over a quarter-million people. Through shifting regimes, the DHS reflects changing priorities for what it considers threats against the “homeland”: some real (climate change, the pandemic), others imagined (activists, voter fraud). Its 2022 budget is $52.2 billion — nearly three times what it was in 2002.

212,000 across thirteen agencies

The DHS is a hodgepodge of workers across many disparate departments

And still, the DHS is bewildering as an organizing body. Maybe Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) make sense under the same department. And the reorganization of Citizenship and Immigration Services under a “security” department perhaps reflects a shift in values more than a lack of forethought. But what about FEMA and the Coast Guard? The Secret Service, even? A big lumping together of disparate agencies, the result of which is increasingly cruel and bizarrely inefficient.

The lucrative private contracts handed out by DHS led to a boom in surveillance technology that is now deployed so widely that violations of privacy are just facts of everyday life. Immigration policy has become even more savage: families are separated, migrants locked in detention centers for months on end, and asylum routinely denied and seekers returned to countries where they are persecuted. Former President Donald Trump went as far as deploying DHS resources to disrupt Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon.

Just as 9/11 gave the US government cover to start two wars abroad, it became the justification to permanently undermine the civil rights of its people — an undermining of civil freedoms disguised as a big knee-jerk reaction.

The Verge’s “Homeland” project is a series of stories about surveillance, immigration, and technology that attempt to unmask the policies that have shaped the US in the 20 years since. For the next three months, we will be publishing investigative features, interviews, and profiles that will capture the breadth of DHS’s influence and power — and how that sprawl has diffused accountability and allowed the agency to operate in total opacity.

The great challenge of conceiving “Homeland” has not been identifying the myriad overreaches and abuses by the DHS but trying to understand the long trail of incentives and violations it has caused. Often, the reasons were unintentional. But repeatedly, the reporting comes to the same conclusion: that the Department of Homeland Security has been a 20-year boondoggle.

— Sarah Jeong and Kevin Nguyen, Editors

Just a week after 9/11, while the country was still reeling, a series of letters began arriving at news organizations and Senate offices. The envelopes were innocuous, indistinguishable from other mail, but inside was a white powder, a rare bacteria that can be fatal if inhaled — anthrax. Five people died and 17 were sickened, in one of the most deadly biological attacks in US history. Yet anthrax had the potential to inflict far more harm: if the spores had been released from a rooftop in downtown Washington, DC, it might have infected hundreds of thousands of people. One letter included the message, “DEATH TO AMERICA,” perhaps indicating more to come. But how could we plan for a silent, odorless killer? 

Responding to the universe of new threats facing the country soon became an all-out scramble, consuming the public and the federal government’s attention for several years. The man that President George W. Bush chose to manage America’s preparation for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident was a renowned physicist and weapons expert named Penrose “Parney” Albright. 

Albright is exactly the kind of guy you’d want in charge of protecting the country from a devastating attack. Known for his candor and ingenuity, he is one of those people with a talent for both hard science and political science. He had excelled at places like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) because he knew how to bring big, complex projects across the finish line. 

So as the Bush administration finalized its plans for a new Department of Homeland Security, ultimately bestowing him the title of Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology, Albright was alarmed to find that the people around him were not as prepared.

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Miriam Sierra Burgas will never forget the man who walked into her bakery in the small mountain town of Castañer, Puerto Rico, pleading for a days-old fritter. It was five days after Hurricane Maria passed, and Castañer, like the rest of the island, was without power. Supermarkets were out of food, and water had stopped flowing from taps.

“It’s no good; it’s cold,” Burgas said of the fritter. “And the person told me, ‘Miss, you don’t know what’s cold; hunger is cold. That’s food, and food is never cold. It’s never gone bad.‘”

After him came people with medications to store in Burgas’ refrigerator, one of the few still running thanks to her generator. Then came residents of the nearby nursing home in search of power for their medical devices. As months passed without electricity, Burgas’ bakery became an ad hoc refuge, and neighbors traveled the island in search of scarce diesel to keep her generator running. Even the nearby hospital came to rely on her bakery to feed its staff and patients.

It was six months before Castañer was reconnected to the grid and nearly a year before electricity was officially restored to the entirety of the island. But the return of power was tenuous. More than five years after Maria and despite billions of dollars in allocated federal recovery funding, Puerto Rico’s electric system remains in a state of protracted disaster, its 30,000 miles of fragile power lines and antiquated oil-burning power plants plagued by regular outages and at the mercy of surging fuel prices. For the worst service in the US, Puerto Ricans pay more than double the average rate. The grid is particularly unstable in remote areas like Castañer, which goes dark as many as three times a week and where Burgas spends $1,200 a month on electricity, plus another $100 daily in fuel for her generator when it goes out.

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Some hours before he was abducted by a squad of feds in camouflage tactical gear, Mark Pettibone was playing a pickup game of Frisbee.

It was what had become a normal night for the summer of 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The city was now four months into the pandemic and two months into the ongoing protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

At this point, Mark and his friend Connor O’Shea — whom he knew from his job at Trader Joe’s — had made a habit of going regularly after work to protest at the Multnomah County Justice Center, a downtown building that houses a jail and the local district attorney’s office. It had been weeks — almost two months — of tear gas and flash-bangs. That was the new normal.

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People cry at airports all the time. So when Jai Cooper heard sobbing from the back of the security line, it didn’t really faze her. As an officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), she had gotten used to the strange behavior of passengers. Her job was to check people’s travel documents, not their emotional well-being.

But this particular group of tearful passengers presented her with a problem. One of them was in a wheelchair, bent over with her head between her knees, completely unresponsive. “Is she okay? Can she sit up?” Cooper asked, taking their boarding passes and IDs to check. “I need to see her face to identify her.”

“She can’t, she can’t, she can’t,” said the passenger who was pushing the wheelchair.

Soon, Cooper was joined at her station by a supervisor, followed by an assortment of EMTs and airport police officers. The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport’s guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in. Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country’s medical system, they figured. 

The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel’s many gray areas.

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The small city of Mexico Beach, Florida, always had a certain charm. It had been lucky. Even though it sits on the Gulf of Mexico, which gets rocked by hurricanes each year, it had never been affected by a major storm. The cinder block buildings and the cottage-style houses still had the same look and character as they did back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the town was first built. Says longtime mayor Al Cathey, “We were just an old Florida look.”

That luck ended with Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2018. It leveled Mexico Beach. Nearly every building was destroyed or unlivable. In the aftermath, there was no power grid, no sewage, no water lines. No police station, no fire station.

Cathey, surveying the wreckage, didn’t have the first clue what to do. “No one here, including myself, had ever dealt with a disaster of that magnitude,” he tells me.

The US prepares for natural disasters by pooling large sums of money in the Federal Emergency Management Agency — a rainy day fund in case of devastation. In theory, to get help, all you have to do is ask for it.

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It’s unlikely the hikers knew they were being watched. They had tried to blend in: all 11 were wearing camouflage with the intention of vanishing into the desert scrub. They were on a remote mountain trail on the outskirts of Ajo, Arizona, a former mining town of about 3,000 people just a few dozen miles north of the Mexican border. It was a warm November morning, still early enough in the day that the sun must have felt good on their skin — the air is cold up in the mountains, colder still in the dry desert winter, though the heat always finds you eventually. The sky was bright and endless, punctuated by just a few clouds. But even if the migrants looked closely, there’s no way they could have noticed the MQ-9 Predator B drone stalking them from 20,000 feet above.

Nearly 150 miles away at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, the migrants were on display. Two Customs and Border Protection agents tracked the group from a cramped shipping container on base that was being used as a temporary ground control station. Each agent sat before five monitors: the pilot flew the drone while the camera operator focused on tracking the group’s movements. The 11 migrants appeared as small figures on a pair of screens, bright white smudges moving across a gray background. Their clothing may have helped them blend in with the cholla cacti and spiky ocotillo plants of the Sonoran Desert, but it couldn’t fool the Predator’s infrared camera. They had been betrayed by their own body heat.

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Martin Scorsese’s vision of America plays out as a country of cops and robbers. Living in the US, you find yourself on one side or the other. Or, in the logic of his 2006 movie The Departed, “when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

The difference, in Scorsese’s self-consciously post-9/11 gangster flick, is the movie’s obsession with the surveillance state. The Departed cribs the ludicrous setup of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs: the police have a mole in the mafia (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the mafia has a mole in the police (Matt Damon). Narrative destiny tasks them with finding the identity of their counterpart, a conceit that sets off a converging mouse hunt — or maybe, in this case, a rat hunt.

Outside of being a showcase of varying degrees of convincing Boston accents, The Departed is a movie about tracking identities, wiretapped phones, and the autocratic invasion of privacy. In one infamous scene, the police have the jump on a shady exchange between Jack Nicholson’s goons and an inscrutable Taiwanese gang in need of some microprocessors. More urgently, the meeting site has been staked out with surveillance equipment: video cameras and phone location tracking. It’s Alec Baldwin’s operation, and he’s about to finally nail Boston’s most notorious criminal. “We’ve been after this cocksucker for a long time,” he says, before grabbing his balls. Admiring the technologies and policies empowering his bust, Baldwin excitedly shouts, “Patriot Act! Patriot Act! Patriot Act! I love it! I love it! I love it!”

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The Abdils decided Afghanistan was no longer safe after their 14-year-old son, Abdul-Azim, was kidnapped on his way home from school. For years, the Taliban abducted children for ransom or used them as leverage in negotiating with the Afghan police. As much as it pained them to abandon their son, Fazela and Hakeem Abdil had other children — two teenage daughters — to think about. They were faced with a difficult choice: stay in an increasingly dangerous Afghanistan or leave their home forever.

Up until then, things had been peaceful for the Abdils. “We had a well-arranged life. We had work, a house. Life was pretty comfortable,” Hakeem says. But conditions in Kabul had grown worse when many assumed they’d get better. In February 2020, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban, promising to withdraw all troops within 14 months so long as it abstained from attacking US soldiers. The violence did not end and, in fact, became more pronounced.

So the Abdils made the painful decision to flee, knowing that they would be leaving Abdul-Azim behind.

If the decision to leave is complicated, it is followed by the equally convoluted, bureaucratic process of emigrating. Hurriedly, the Abdils fled to Tajikistan where they awaited visas into Ukraine. Then they began a process to enter the US. After working alongside the Americans for nearly a decade in logistics and transport, Fazela qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granting her and her family permanent safety in the States. The SIV can be read two ways: as a reward for aiding American forces or an acknowledgment that helping the US can put an Afghan’s life in peril.

That process left them in nearly two years of limbo. But, last December, the Abdils finally arrived in California. From the airport, they were transported to a mosque near Union City, where they slept on floor mats for one night, shielded by a single curtain. Without any money to spend on Ubers or bus passes, the family walked an hour and 40 minutes to a local nonprofit, the Afghan Coalition, to begin the process of resettlement.

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Kristjen Nielsen’s tenure as the head of the Department of Homeland Security was perhaps best known for the family separation policy at the border. The recordings of crying toddlers, the children wrapped in silver foil blankets, the detention
 conditions likened to “cages” — this was her legacy. Nielsen was reviled by almost everyone from the center and leftwards. Ironically, President Trump himself disliked her, in part, for not being tough enough on immigration, and would eventually force her out.

Nielsen would be the last legal Secretary of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. What would follow would be a chaotic parade involving governance-by-tweet, a thicket of laws and regulations, incorrectly amended paperwork, and a strangely hilarious internal legal memo referencing a @DHSgov tweet as though it held some kind of binding authority. Seven months later, Nielsen’s eventual successor, Chad Wolf, would take her place.

It was under Wolf’s direction that a motley crew of federal law enforcement — drawn from Border Patrol, ICE, the US Marshals, and Federal Protective Services — would occupy the city of Portland, Oregon, bathing its downtown district in a pea-souper of tear gas and snatching up its citizens for questioning in unmarked minivans. These brutal yet ineffective tactics were a response to the supposed “lawlessness” of the George Floyd protests in Portland. But Wolf’s own lawless occupation of the Secretary’s seat would go largely unchecked.

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The way we move through an airport was radically changed by 9/11. The formation of the Transportation Security Administration under the Department of Homeland Security created much more rigorous and invasive security measures for travelers trying to
 catch their flight.

Nobody enjoys waiting in the airport security line. But you can make that wait a little bit shorter — and also keep your shoes on — if you pay for a program rolled out by the TSA called “PreCheck.” In a post-9/11 world, this is the great innovation of the department.

At least according to Dan McCoy. This is a guy who should know innovation, as the TSA’s chief innovation officer. In my interview with him, he called PreCheck “a hallmark government innovation program.”

But what do programs like PreCheck and the larger surveillance apparatus that theoretically keep us safe mean for the choices we make? What do we give up to get into the shorter security line, and how comfortable should we be with that?

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Kevin Nguyen and Sarah Jeong
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