Homeland Security in the Heartland

posted 01/18/2006

It comes as no surprise to those who live here that the upper midwest of America is a quiet, laid-back sort of place; that's one of the area's principle charms. Though slowly growing and evolving, America's heartland remains a slow, peaceful, and altogether relatively safe place. Sure, it may not have the excitement of the west coast, or the cutting-edge trendiness of the eastern seaboard, but it's also lacking in something else, something most notable in it's absence - suspicious terrorist activity.

According to documents released this month by the Department of Homeland Security, in calendar year 2004, thirteen incidents or events in Minnesota were reported in DHS's Homeland Security Operations Morning Brief, a daily internal memo, distributed nationwide, of noteworthy events in, or information about, the domestic war on terror. Seven incidents in Wisconsin made the Brief in that time period, as did a single event in Iowa. While the total number of incidents reported across the nation for the year isn't known, educated estimates put the number between twelve- and fifteen-hundred, suggesting that thanks to, or more likely despite, the constant vigilance of the upper midwest's law enforcement agencies, there is comparatively little of note going on around here.

Examining the reports in detail, it's hard to escape any other conclusion. Three of the Wisconsin entries are for "suspicious" photography, of Milwaukee harbor, a petroleum tank farm, and a disused nuclear power plant, all apparently suspicious more because the photographers had dark skin than anything else. One was either an unsuccessful attempt to "social engineer" information from a utility company, or a badly-scripted sales pitch. One concerned a tourism brochure mailed in a silver cardboard tube and mistaken for a pipe bomb. Rounding out the state's list were one vague phone threat to a refinery, and the detention, for allegedly plotting to blow up Milwaukee's Reuss Federal Plaza building, of a person already in custody on other charges.

Minnesota's coverage is dominated by Minneapolis - Saint Paul International Airport. Two suspicious individuals of apparent note were denied entry, an airport police badge was stolen, and the announcement of the "registered traveler program" trial was for some reason considered noteworthy. Outside the airport, the Border Patrol in Duluth arrested an individual with an expired visa, a lock and dam on the Mississippi river was photographed, and a phone threat was made to the Duluth airport. There was real hinkiness in Minnesota, though - a pipe bomb was found in the mail in Saint Paul, and subsequently detonated, leaving no usable evidence behind; a fellow tried and failed to have some (counterfeit) LAPD identification cards duplicated at a Kinko's copy shop, and someone was arrested after being overheard making threats over the phone to blow someone or something up. A vaguely-worded indictment of a Minneapolis resident early in the year for allegedly aiding Al-Qaida somehow and a report of media coverage of a concealable, two-shot black-powder bb-gun were the last of the excitement for the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Iowa's contribution to the war on terror in the course of the year was the news that the state was implementing new monitoring of commercial tractor-trailers at interstate weigh stations.

A lot of this is less than exciting, it's true, and it's hard to see just how some of these really concern homeland security, or why they were considered sufficiently noteworthy to be distributed to departments and agencies nationwide. Refineries, locks and dams, and petroleum tanks get photographed every day; aside from involving people unfortunate enough to have darker-than-average skin, why are these events worthy of nationwide attention? It would help, perhaps, to understand something about the Department of Homeland Security, and about the HSOMB.

DHS exists to fight the domestic, stateside part of the Global War on Terror. Regrettably for them, there just hasn't been a whole lot happening on the local terror front since 9/11, even with today's broadened definitions of "terror". This is good for America and it's people, of course, but not real great when it comes time, as it does every year, for DHS and it's components to justify their budgets. I believe this was a problem foreseen when DHS was created. After their primary duties - be it protecting our borders (Border Patrol/Immigration and Customs Enforcement), federal law-enforcement activities (Federal Bureau of Investigation), or whatever, one of the most important duties imposed on the component agencies and departments that make up the Department of Homeland Security is the dissemination of intelligence and the sharing of information with other departments and agencies. In the absence of real homeland security crises here in the Heartland, as elsewhere, agencies are evidently willing to do whatever it takes to keep up with the neighbors and be seen to be valuable, contributing members of the team. Increased activity and participation leads to increased visibility, and - in the hopes and prayers of middle-managers the country over - more funding when the annual budget gets divvied up.

The Homeland Security Operations Morning Brief is just one of many ways that information can be shared with other agencies. Distributed every weekday, nationwide, electronically, it's a cheap and easy way to let the world know that you're still out there, on the ball, with your eyes peeled for every sign of terrorist activity. That there are precious few terrorists of any description actually being caught doesn't matter. Homeland Security is a top-heavy bureaucracy, and like so many such bureaucracies, where actual achievement is rare and hard to find, looking busy is the order of the day. In the quest to appear busy, the definition of "terrorism" is stretched ever wider, encompassing things like the theft of methamphetamine precursors, the arrest of fugitive murder suspects, and even cattle smuggling.

Do you know how many terrorist attacks there were in the midwest in 2004? None. How many were there nationwide? None. In Wisconsin, one - maybe - attack, by a Ted Kaczynski wannabe already in jail, might have been averted by law enforcement. There's simply no terrorist activity here, by MEM (DHS's abbreviation for Middle Eastern Males) or otherwise. In the sort of climate and culture prevalent in the DHS, is it any wonder we citizens are constantly being reminded to be vigilant, to keep our eyes and ears open, and to report every even slightly suspicious activity or incident to the authorities? We're not watching for a serial killer, or a rapist, or a repeat bank robber; we're looking for something that's not actually there, and why? So the local FBI field offices and other DHS component agencies can look busy, and present this facade of labor not to the public, who never sees or hears about what they do; not to Congress, which at the (Republican-controlled rubber-stamp) moment doesn't care what they do; but to each other, in a fairly contemptible display of chest-pounding. Hard-working or hardly working; either way, it's our tax dollars at work.


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