Well, that didn’t take long, did it?
Since January, when the Homeland Security Department hung out its shingle, the government’s been tut-tutting and tsk-tsking at silly, scared little us.
We’re just being irrational, the government reassured us soothingly -- worrying that these new federal agencies, with their super-mega-ultra-uber snooping authority, like finding out what library books we’ve checked out, could be turned loose on blameless Americans. What, us, spy on you? Nonsense. Where do you think this is (pick one): Russia? North Korea? Iraq?
Do I get another choice?
The Homeland Security Department isn’t quite 6 months old. Osama’s still missing, Saddam’s taken a powder, but last week Texas lawmen had no problem enlisting a homeland security outfit in Southern California to help hunt down the enemy du jour: wayward Democratic legislators.
On the afternoon of May 12, a phone rang in Riverside, at a homeland security unit called the Air & Marine Interdiction Coordination Center, AMICC. Set up at the old March Air Force Base, it’s an operation that can monitor potential terrorists by tracking every plane in North American skies.
The voice at the other end figuratively flashed a badge, identifying himself as a Texas Department of Public Safety officer.
As the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s account told it, the Texan said: “We got a problem and I hope you can help me out.” A plane on a 73-minute flight from Oklahoma to Texas was overdue. “It had state representatives on it and we cannot find this plane.” He repeated: “We cannot find this plane,” and he recited the tail number.
A nightmare scenario. Bombs bursting all over the Mideast, and now a missing Piper Cheyenne full of U.S. legislators.
This is the sort of thing AMICC was brought online for, answering “an urgent plea for assistance from a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost or possibly crashed aircraft.”
The plane belongs to a big-time Texas Democrat, and as everyone knows by now, and some people knew even then, he and 54 other Texas Democrats were holed up in Oklahoma, at a Holiday Inn Express, living on Denny’s Grand Slams and a case of whiskey from Willie Nelson until the deadline passed and they’d dodged a vote on reapportionment.
The reapportionment plan, coming two years after the last redrawing of congressional districts, was about getting more Texas Republicans into Congress, the fondest wish of Texan and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay made a pile as an exterminator before coming to Congress, where some would argue he has hewed to his old craft. It’s because of his plan, handed down to the state Legislature, that Democrats skedaddled into Oklahoma to deny the Republicans a voting quorum. And that triggered the call to Riverside to hunt for the “missing” plane.
AMICC never sent up any planes to search. When the missing Piper didn’t turn up after a half-hour’s phone calls, AMICC told the Texas fellow so and gave him the FAA’s phone number to take it from there.
Riverside had evidently gone by the book, not knowing it had been hoodwinked.
Back in March, when the operation that once scanned the sky for drug smugglers was brought into the Homeland Security family, Air Guard Maj. Mark Jansky told The Times: “Before Sept. 11, 2001, we were constantly having to redefine our relevancy. People kept asking, ‘What are you defending us against?’ ”
Now we know. Texas Democrats.
If Texas feels it’s a proper use of tax money and official power to send a Texas Ranger to look for missing legislators by questioning nurses in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit where one legislator’s premature twins are patients, that’s Texas’ business.
But if Texas feels it can lean on a homeland security agency to play an unwitting political enforcer on the public’s dime -- and at the expense of public faith -- that’s very much our business.
I called Ken Calvert’s office on Monday to see what he had to say. He’s the congressman for Riverside, and a Republican. It’s now 8 p.m. in D.C. as I’m writing this, and my phone still hasn’t rung. His spokeswoman told me that he’s aware of the situation. Him and anybody who reads the papers.
Texas’ D.C. Democrats are having a swell time whooping and hollering over this. Other Democratic congressmen asked the Homeland Security Department’s acting inspector general to look into this possible “shameful diversion of taxpayer resources for partisan purposes.” But that acting inspector general, a Texan who goes by the wonderful name of Clark Kent Ervin, just removed himself from the investigation into all this.
Who can blame Democrats for acting like this could be a gift certificate for what they didn’t get for Christmas and very much need: a spine.
A Texas GOP legislator told the Houston Chronicle that they really were worried that the plane had crashed. Uh-huh. And during Watergate, President Nixon really was considering Dan Schorr for a government appointment when he ordered the FBI to investigate the reporter.
This isn’t just about one phone call to a decommissioned air base in the California desert. It’s about the feeling that here’s one more seamy page in the bad-government journal:
J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped Martin Luther King’s sex life. President Lyndon Johnson wiretapped his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, when Humphrey ran for president in 1968. IRS employees thumbed through celebrities’ tax files like copies of People magazine at the dentist’s office. And of course the many-tentacled Watergate scandal, the “third-rate burglary,” made a first-rate lesson in federal power loosed on political enemies.
And now this specter of another kind of abuse of power: that in the face of a real enemy, the nation’s resources could be diverted to hunt for phony enemies, among Americans themselves.
Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org