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After 20 years, examining the mixed legacy of the Department of Homeland Security

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week marks two decades since Congress established the Department of Homeland Security. The agency was created after the 9/11 attacks to protect the country against further acts of foreign terrorism. But now there are growing questions about whether DHS is keeping up with evolving threats to the homeland. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent, Odette Yousef, joins us now.

Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Twenty years - it's a long time. Can you give us some context about how the threat, the terrorism threat that DHS has been charged to address - how that threat has changed over that time?

YOUSEF: Well, Rachel, when DHS was formed, terrorism was really framed as a problem originating overseas, you know, particularly from hierarchical networked groups like al-Qaida and ISIS. Those threats continue today, but there have been huge shifts in the threat landscape, namely an elevated threat now from domestic actors, specifically, you know, violent white supremacists and antigovernment and militia-aligned extremists. These often act alone. They can easily access weapons. And today's DHS is coming under fire for not doing all that it can to counter that new iteration of the threat.

MARTIN: So say more about the nuances of that criticism.

YOUSEF: Well, at a recent congressional hearing with the heads of DHS, FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center, Michigan Senator Gary Peters hit on a theme that he's been sounding many times over the last three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY PETERS: DHS and FBI have failed to effectively measure and share comprehensive data on the threat posed by violent domestic extremist and, specifically, white supremacist and antigovernment violence.

YOUSEF: And, Rachel, there has been troubling evidence that indicates DHS has been overly fearful, for example, or simply unskilled when it comes to using some tools that are at its disposal. You know, for example, The Washington Post reported that DHS has slowed down research relying on publicly accessible information about domestic terrorism, perhaps as an overcorrection to charges it faced in the 9/11 years of overreach.

Similarly, government reports have detailed some embarrassing failures leading up to the January 6 attack, like relying on inexperienced staff to analyze open-source information about the threats that were planned for that day. And from Republicans, the criticism has been different. They have been entirely focused on DHS's handling of the migration surge at the southern border. And even though there's no evidence that anyone who poses a threat to national security has crossed into the U.S., DHS has been overwhelmed by those numbers.

MARTIN: And I can't help but fixate on something you just said a moment ago about the lack of information sharing. This was totally what happened after 9/11 - right? - I mean, are these silos of information, and this was to blame, in part, for why intelligence agencies didn't catch 9/11 to begin with. I mean, what does DHS have to say about all these critiques?

YOUSEF: Well, DHS hasn't responded yet to questions from NPR. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said that his department could use more funding from Congress to counter this threat. You know, I think, realistically - with Republicans set to take control of Congress in January, Rachel, I think DHS is going to face even greater challenges to call out and confront the domestic terrorism threat because Republicans really are focused on the border.

But there is urgency in addressing this issue. You know, for example, look at the tragic killings at an LGBTQ nightclub over the weekend in Colorado Springs. The exact cause is still being investigated, but the attack highlights real fears about how hateful rhetoric and a climate of political violence...

MARTIN: Yeah.

YOUSEF: ...Are evolving and what they could lead to.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.