The Department of Homeland Security’s Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) says its mission is to “Protect the Nation’s borders and the American people from the smuggling of narcotics and other contraband with an integrated and coordinated air and marine interdiction force.”

So it is easy to understand why Texans were scratching their heads when they learned that the division’s Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside, California, played a critical role in tracking down the Democratic legislators who went missing from the Texas Capitol this week.

The revelation that the federal anti-terrorism agency joined the Republican-sponsored hunt for the Texas legislators has sparked a fury in Austin and in Washington. While the Texas Democratic Party is calling for an accounting of all the state and federal resources employed in the partisan dragnet, Congressional Democrats in Washington are demanding to know how and why a Department of Homeland Security tracking center in California was pulled into the service of the Republican leadership in the Texas State House.

The federal angle is the latest twist in the bizarre saga of Republican abuse of power and Democratic counter moves in Texas.

The story of the absent legislators is big news, not just in Texas but in Washington. US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was furious with the Democrats, whose absence will prevent enactment of a redistricting plan DeLay had crafted to increase the number of Texas congressional districts likely to elect Republicans from 15 to 19. The legally-dubious gerrymandering scheme has been a top priority of DeLay; the powerful Republican leader admits he has even discussed it with President Bush, a former Texas governor, who reportedly told DeLay, “I’d like to see that happen.” As it became increasingly clear that DeLay would not get his way — the absence of the Democratic legislators has denied the Texas Republican leaders the quorum needed to approve the redistricting plan before a Thursday deadline — he blew up. The man politicos refer to as “The Hammer” was so angry that he speculated on Tuesday about whether federal law might allow FBI agents to travel to the Oklahoma hotel where 51 Democrats were staying, arrest the lawmakers and return them to Austin before the deadline. U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said it appeared that Republican leaders were trying to make federal law enforcement agencies “Tom DeLay’s personal police force.”

DeLay’s dream was not to be, however. When Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, DeLay’s man in Austin, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the US Marshall Service to do the GOP’s bidding, the offical response was “no.” US Department of Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez told reporters that responsibility for tracking down the legislators “falls squarely within the purview of state authority, and it would not warrant investigation by federal authorities.”

But, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the federal Air and Marine Interdiction Division did get involved in the investigation. The division, a combination of old Customs Department agencies that now operates under the jurisdiction of the Bush Administration’s Homeland Security Department, has long used its California facility to monitor efforts to illegally enter the United States via the skies or waterways. The Star-Telegram reports that, after the Texas Democratic legislators went missing early this week, “The agency got a call, it’s unclear exactly from when or from whom, to locate a certain Piper Turbo-Prop aircraft.”

The Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside reportedly tracked the aircraft in question — which belongs to former House Speaker Pete Laney, one of the departed Democrats — to Ardmore, Oklahoma.

When questioned, Republican Tom Craddick admitted that the information about the plane’s location was critical to solving the mystery of where the Democrats had disappeared to. “We called someone and they said they were going to track it,” Craddick said of the plane. “That’s how we found them.”

As it turned out, Oklahoma authorities laughed off attempts by the Texas Department of Public Safety to extend their authority across the state line. So knowing where the Democrats were sleeping was of little consequence.

But the nagging question of how the Department of Homeland Security got pulled into the investigation lingers. Craddick won’t say who it was that promised to track Pete Laney’s place. And the usually precise Tom DeLay goes a little vague when it comes to answering questions about his meddling in state and federal affairs.

That hasn’t stopped Texans from asking questions, however. “I thought the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to be busy monitoring terrorist threats — especially external terrorist threats,” says Sarah Wheat, a Texas abortion rights activist who, like many Texans, says she is glad the Democrats went AWOL. “The only threat the Democratic legislators pose is to Tom DeLay’s political agenda and a whole bunch of bad bills.”

Texas representatives in Washington from trying to get to the bottom of what appears to be a serious abuse of federal power. U.S. House members from Texas have written U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller, demanding details regarding federal involvement in the search and seeking an investigation of DeLay’s efforts to enlist federal help in the search for the Texas legislators.

U.S. Representative Martin Frost, D-Texas, expressed his outrage by making a historical comparison, explaining that, “Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate 30 years ago has there been an effort to involve federal law enforcement officials in a partisan political matter.”