ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Department of Homeland Security was created to guard against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. That initial focus has evolved. Now government agents are confronting protesters on the streets of Portland, Ore. Former DHS leaders have criticized this mission, including Janet Napolitano. Here's what she told NPR.
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JANET NAPOLITANO: The Department of Homeland Security is not the president's militia force. It's not intended to be that. It's not designed to be that.
SHAPIRO: For more on this evolving role, we are joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How would you describe the focus of DHS these days under the Trump administration?
MYRE: Well, it's been very prominent since Day 1. We've seen the president's strong emphasis on preventing illegal immigration along the southern border, his attempts to build a border wall, the overcrowded detention facilities and all the political controversies that have flowed from this. Now, critics say Trump is increasingly employing DHS for partisan goals. And these critics include David Lapan. He's a former DHS official, and he says he saw this happening from the earliest days of the Trump administration, when he was still at DHS.
DAVID LAPAN: I could see the seeds of that in 2017. That has progressed over time. So that, along with what we're seeing in Portland and the threats of other cities, I think have advanced in those ways that are damaging to the Department of Homeland Security's reputation, to its mission and to the way the public views it.
SHAPIRO: So, Greg, compare that broad mission today to the early days of DHS after 9/11.
MYRE: You know, in the early days, I think a lot of people probably knew DHS best from its color-coded terrorism threat levels. But that certainly seems like a different era now. But after 9/11, there was this realization that, really, nobody had this overarching responsibility for keeping Americans safe at home. The military fights abroad. In a sense, it plays the away games. But there was nobody to do this domestically. So DHS was used to bundle together a lot of disparate agencies with the intention that they work together. It oversees the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, TSA at airports and many, many more. DHS has about a quarter-million employees, one of the largest departments in the government.
SHAPIRO: So to bring this to the present day, we see government agents confronting protesters in Portland, and then there's also this DHS memo that talks about what the department's doing behind the scenes. Tell us what it reveals.
MYRE: Right. So this memo talks about surveillance, which is an ongoing DHS activity in its Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which - a department or agency that rarely makes the news. Now, Steve Vladeck, a law professor at The University of Texas, has read this memo. It set some guidelines that agents can do, like keeping tabs on specific individuals in the streets or monitoring social media posts. We don't know to what extent this is actually happening, and DHS isn't talking about it. And we should note, the guidelines do not permit electronic surveillance - you know, tapping phones or computers. Still, Vladeck says sending federal agents on this kind of mission seems very misguided, especially when there's a pandemic.
STEPHEN VLADECK: Not because memorials and statues are unimportant, but because in the grand scheme of things, they seem far less important than all of the other things the Department of Homeland Security could be focused on, including - let's not forget - you know, the massive public health crisis that the United States is in the middle of.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly - there's been so much pushback to these recent DHS activities. How is it likely to play out?
MYRE: Well, the president does have this authority, but there's supposed to be coordination. And, traditionally, the role has been for the governors to call on the National Guard if they want help with crowd control.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.