Politics

What to make of the DHS whistleblower’s surprising grievance

Top Trump administration officials at the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly ordered subordinates to suppress or change US intelligence reports on critical national security issues — including election interference by Russia — so they wouldn’t contradict the president or make him look bad.

That’s according to an explosive new whistleblower complaint released by the Democrat-led House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday afternoon. The complaint was filed by Brian Murphy, who until recently headed intelligence and analysis at DHS.

In the 24-page report and a seven-page supplement, Murphy alleges four main incidents of wrongdoing by his superiors at the agency:

That then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeatedly, and perhaps knowingly, exaggerated the number of suspected terrorists crossing the southern border into the US in official documents and sessions with lawmakers — despite having been briefed numerous times by Murphy that the numbers she was citing were not accurate.
That DHS acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told Murphy to alter an intelligence report detailing the high levels of corruption, violence, and economic problems in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to make those countries look like safe destinations for migrants, a judgment that would aid Trump’s restrictive asylum policy.
That DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf, at the request of White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, ordered Murphy to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.”
That Cuccinelli and Wolf at different times instructed Murphy to modify domestic terrorism threat assessments to downplay the threat from white supremacists and add information on the prominence of violent left-wing groups like antifa “to ensure (the assessments) matched up with the public comments by President Trump.”

This is corrosive stuff. The allegations paint a picture of a loyalist-led government subverting the US national security process to meet Trump’s political needs. This may not be as big a scandal as when Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden’s family ahead of his reelection bid, but it’s still damning.

A word of caution: Multiple people familiar with Murphy’s time at DHS told me he’d often engaged in the same kind of behavior he now accuses his superiors of doing, namely altering assessments to fit the administration’s policies. In addition, news reports in late July revealed that Murphy’s office had been compiling “intelligence reports” on journalists and protesters in Portland, Oregon.

Murphy fiercely denies those allegations, but shortly after the reports were published, he was demoted from his position and reassigned to an administrative support role. Some people I spoke to said Murphy’s whistleblower report is “definitely” meant as retaliation against his superiors for his demotion.

His credibility, then, is somewhat suspect.

However, the complaint notes Murphy had reported these incidents to his immediate supervisor, others in his chain of command, and DHS’s inspector general between March 2018 and August 2020 — well before his demotion.

And two sources I spoke to confirmed one of the claims in Murphy’s complaint: that National Security Adviser O’Brien directed DHS to minimize intelligence reports on Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election and instead focus on interference by China and Iran.

“That’s even been the instructions within the NSC,” a senior White House official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “POTUS does not want to hear anything negative about Russia,” the official added, using an acronym for the president of the United States. A second source familiar with O’Brien’s directive also confirmed this. The White House denies this.

It’s worth it, then, to go through exactly what Murphy claims happened at DHS, why it’s so troubling, and what it tells us about intelligence and national security in the Trump era.

Overall, it’s a disturbing picture.

Claim 1: Former DHS Secretary Nielsen repeatedly misled Congress about the threat of terrorists entering the US through the southern border

Murphy says that from October 2018 to March 2019, he, Nielsen, and other top DHS officials discussed how best to present their argument to Congress for building a wall on the southern border with Mexico. Such an expansive wall, of course, was Trump’s most high-profile campaign promise, in which he insisted only a structure that massive could curb illegal immigration and stop violent criminals and terrorists from entering the United States.

Their discussions centered on “known or suspected terrorists” (KSTs) — individuals believed to be terrorists or to have ties to known terrorists — and Murphy was charged with providing to Nielsen analysis on their threat. That’s different from “special interest aliens,” a term used by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to identify people who come from countries with a big terrorist presence but who aren’t specifically linked to terrorism themselves. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.)

Around October 29, a top official told Murphy “to ensure the intelligence assessments he produced for Secretary Nielsen’s review supported the policy argument that large numbers of KSTs were entering the United States through the southwest border.”

Whistleblower complaint

Here’s where it gets a little complicated. In the original complaint, Murphy made the eye-popping charge that Nielsen had perjured herself in front of Congress. He said the then- secretary testified to a House committee that, in 2017, DHS had prevented 3,755 KSTs from traveling to or entering the US, even though the real number was no more than three.

“He has a good faith belief that the testimony Secretary Nielsen subsequently provided on December 20, 2018, regarding KSTs constituted a knowing and deliberate submission of false material information,” the complaint reads. He makes the same charge about a March 6, 2019, hearing — that she repeated the figure and misled lawmakers once more.

For Murphy, Nielsen’s untruths in front of Congress amounted to potential perjury — a criminal charge.

But Murphy was mistaken: Nielsen didn’t actually say that during her testimony. What she did say in December 2018, for example, were comments like these citing the correct figure: “What I can tell you is we stopped 3,000 special interest aliens at the border last year.” In March, she made a similar remark, only this time specifying that all 3,000 SIAs were stopped at the southern border. She didn’t, however, conflate SIAs with KSTs as Murphy originally reported.

The error prompted Nielsen’s attorneys to contact Murphy’s legal team to correct the record, which they did. On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee made public a seven-page supplement drafted by the whistleblower’s counsel to clarify what Murphy alleged — and it’s still troubling.

Simply put, the supplement says DHS misled Congress and the American public about terrorists entering the US through the southwest border, in tweets and White House-backed PowerPoint presentations, and that Nielsen was partly responsible.

Here’s what happened, per the supplement: On December 12, 2018, the DHS spokesperson’s Twitter account stated “DHS prevented 3,755 known or suspected terrorists from traveling to or entering the U.S. in FY 17,” which in addition to others included “3,028 special interest aliens.”

Murphy claims that was a knowingly misleading statement: “That tweet did not specifically clarify that the figure of 3,755 KSTs was meant to encompass all methods of entry into the entire United States, as opposed to attempts to enter exclusively by way of the southwest border, which again was the topic being publicly discussed and debated” (italics in the original).

We are happy to provide the facts — but you never reached out. In fact, DHS prevented 3,755 known or suspected terrorists from traveling to or entering the U.S. in FY 17. That’s in addition to 17,526 criminals, 1,019 gang members, and 3,028 special interest aliens. #FactsFirst https://t.co/4naI8XOg9x

— DHS spokesperson (@SpoxDHS) December 12, 2018

The administration continued to boost the misleading statistic. The White House provided members of Congress a border briefing presentation on Thursday, January 2, 2019 — even though the supplement mistakenly says the session took place on the 3rd. The fourth slide notes there were “3,755 Known or suspected terrorists prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S. by DHS.” The supplement notes the slides were given to the White House “at the direction of Secretary Neilson (sic).”

Murphy believes the allegation in his original complaint, that Nielsen misled lawmakers, therefore still stands: “Whether the information had been stated in her public testimony in December 2018 or not is irrelevant. Secretary Nielsen provided this figure directly to Congress,” the supplement reads.

He continued: “It should be noted that these slides were created by or with substantial assistance from DHS, and the figure of 3,755 KSTs was prominently featured. In Mr. Murphy’s view, this was a deliberate effort by DHS/White House to distort the facts and mislead the public with inaccurate insinuations for political purposes.”

Whistleblower supplement

There’s another aspect to all this that’s worth mentioning.

In the supplement, Murphy repeats a scene from his original complaint: that before the March 2019 congressional hearing, he advised Nielsen in a prep session to tell lawmakers “the actual number of KSTs apprehended at the southwest border was no more than three people.” Wolf and Miles Taylor, then the DHS chief of staff, responded to Murphy, saying, “Secretary Nielsen should claim the information was classified and decline to provide clarification. Notably, Secretary Nielsen was present during this conversation.”

At the House Homeland Security hearing, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) asked Nielsen about the 3,755 KST figure. He stated that most of those people were stopped by US officials at airports, and Nielsen agreed, adding that some are stopped even before they travel.

Then Correa, citing open source CBP figures, said only six people arrested at the southern border in fiscal year 2018 had their names on a federal KST list. Nielsen responded that such figures were classified and couldn’t provide more information — just like Wolf and Taylor had advised her to do.

The bottom line: It’s clear that, in various press conferences and public statements, Nielsen and others in the administration frequently played fast and loose with the statistics on suspected terrorists crossing the US-Mexico border in order to justify the president’s plan to build a border wall. That’s certainly not great, but it’s also not illegal.

When it comes to the accusation that Nielsen lied during sworn congressional testimony, though — which is potentially illegal — the evidence seems to be thin.

Claim 2: DHS leaders wanted intelligence on Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras changed to fit Trump’s asylum policy

To understand this allegation, you need to understand Trump’s controversial third-country asylum policy.

In 2019, the US signed immigration agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The agreements require that migrants who travel from other countries through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to reach the US-Mexico border must first apply for asylum in one of those three countries, before applying for asylum in the US. If migrants failed to do so, US immigration authorities would deport them to one of those three countries.

This is essentially what’s known as a “safe third country” agreement. Under US law, migrants seeking asylum in the US can be rejected and instead deported to another country, as long as the migrant’s “life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” in that country, and as long as the country has a “full and fair” procedure for determining asylum.

The Trump administration’s argument is that Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador meet these criteria, and thus it’s okay to send asylum seekers in the US to those countries to request asylum instead.

Except, well, those countries are not safe — corruption, crime, violence, and lack of economic opportunity have driven hundreds of thousands to flee the countries in recent years. That’s obviously a problem for the administration’s policy.

Murphy alleges that in December 2019, when he presented intelligence reports documenting the dangerous conditions in those three Central American countries to his superiors at DHS — namely Cuccinelli — he was told to alter the reports to make it look like the countries were safer than they really are.

“Mr. Cuccinelli stated he wanted changes to the information outlining high levels of corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions in the three respective countries,” the complaint reads. Such a change wouldn’t just alter intelligence but would counter previous US government reports on the true state of those countries, like this State Department one on Guatemala outlining unlawful killings by the government.

Cuccinelli allegedly felt the reports were written solely to push back on the president’s asylum policy. He “expressed frustration with the intelligence reports, and he accused unknown ‘deep state intelligence analysts’ of compiling the intelligence information to undermine President Donald J. Trump’s … policy objectives with respect to asylum,” the complaint reads.

Murphy said that the information in the reports featured standard and long-standing analysis, but Cuccinelli ordered Murphy and his boss “to identify the names of the ‘deep state’ individuals who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately.” Murphy claims he told his boss that order was “illegal” and “an abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program.”

No one followed through on Cuccinelli’s instruction, Murphy says.

Whistleblower complaint

Claim 3: DHS leadership pushed to minimize Russia’s 2020 election interference and emphasize China’s influence operations — at the White House’s direction

Russia interfered in the 2016 election to support Trump’s election bid, and is doing so again in 2020. But the president doesn’t like to acknowledge any of that and gets angry when intelligence officials point it out.

Because of this, Murphy alleges, his superiors at DHS told him in mid-May 2020 “to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.”

Further, Murphy alleges: “Mr. Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.”

Whistleblower complaint

That’s a massive claim. The national security adviser’s job is to take in information from all parts of government, synthesize it, prepare options for the president on how to deal with all that information, and then present it in an unbiased way. What Murphy alleges in this case, though, is O’Brien is purposely telling officials at DHS to minimize a major threat, just so the president wouldn’t get mad.

A senior White House official and another person familiar with the situation told me Murphy’s claims are spot-on.

“That’s true about DHS intelligence,” the White House official said. “They only want to hear about China. Russians are angels.” As for O’Brien, the official told me he’s demanded senior directors on the National Security Council to minimize the Russia interference stuff, and other agencies got the message.

That’s been going on since O’Brien assumed his job in September 2019, the official added. Trump “does not want to hear anything negative about Russia.”

That fits with previous O’Brien actions, like when he said in February, “I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump reelected” and when he ordered NSC staff to stop briefing the Hill on election interference this month.

Sarah Matthews, a White House spokesperson, refutes Murphy’s allegations, though, saying O’Brien “has never sought to dictate the Intelligence Community’s focus on the threats to the integrity of our elections or on any other topic: any contrary suggestion by a disgruntled former employee, who he has never met or heard of, is false and defamatory.”

“Ambassador O’Brien has consistently and publicly advocated for a holistic focus on all threats to our elections — whether from Russia, Iran, China, or any other malign actor,” she continued.

But there’s more: Murphy claims that Wolf on July 8 told him not to send out an intelligence notification — which would typically be shared with other US intelligence agencies such as the FBI — about Russian disinformation efforts because it “made the President look bad.”

Murphy resisted, telling Wolf that “it was improper to hold a vetted intelligence product for reasons for political embarrassment.” Wolf apparently looked to bar Murphy from future meetings on the subject, and the notification was completed without Murphy’s input.

The final, completed draft, according to Murphy, was severely flawed, as it aimed “to place the actions of Russia on par with those of Iran and China in a manner that is misleading and inconsistent with the actual intelligence data.”

Whistleblower complaint

Still, the pressure stemming from O’Brien also seemed to affect other parts of the government. In August, a statement by National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina equated Russia’s interference efforts with those of China’s and Iran’s, and even put the China section first.

But most experts say Russia’s interference efforts are by far the more serious and direct threat to the 2020 election, whereas China’s and Iran’s activities are focused more on longer-term intelligence collection.

I think it is even worse than that. It intentionally distorts the intel to manufacture the appearance of an election interference threat from China (as opposed to a general counterintelligence threat). https://t.co/QgdjNcLTMv

— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) September 10, 2020

What all this shows is that, at the direction of a top White House official, agencies like DHS are purposely trying to keep Russia’s interference out of the public spotlight — and Trump’s hearing range — while elevating the threat China and Iran pose.

It’s a dangerous circumstance because it would mean the machinery of the US government is prioritizing the president’s feelings over the nation’s security and the 2020 election’s integrity.

Claim 4: DHS leaders wanted to tone down the dangers of white supremacy and Russian interference while inflating the threat from left-wing groups

Murphy says that in March 2020, his team at DHS produced a Homeland Threat Assessment (HTA). This is a report that analyzes the terrorism threat to the US homeland, how dangerous each of the various threats really is, and what — if anything — can be done to mitigate them.

That assessment, requested by the agency’s previous secretary, didn’t sit well with the new leadership.

After Murphy sent the HTA around to top officials like Wolf and Cuccinelli, he was told shortly afterward that “further distribution of the HTA was prohibited” because of concerns those two men had. Specifically, they worried about “how the HTA would reflect upon President Trump” because of two sections in the assessment: one on white supremacy and another on Russian interference.

Two months later, Murphy took over the intelligence office after his boss retired and proceeded to have multiple meetings with Cuccinelli on the HTA. In those chats, per the complaint, “Mr. Cuccinelli stated that Mr. Murphy needed to specifically modify the section on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

Murphy, once again, responded that doing so “would constitute censorship of analysis and the improper administration of an intelligence program.”

Whistleblower complaint

The pressure would mount. On July 8 — the same date Murphy was told that intelligence on Russian election interference would make Trump “look bad” — Wolf echoed what Cuccinelli had said months prior.

But Wolf had another request: He wanted to see a copy of the HTA so that, among other things, information about the protests in Portland, Oregon, could be added. Murphy replied that he wouldn’t allow any edits to the assessment that altered the intelligence.

The HTA, it turns out, was afterward completed without Murphy’s involvement. A new draft was finished in August, per the complaint, and Wolf received a copy on September 3. Murphy worried “the final version of the HTA will more closely resemble a policy document with references to ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups than an intelligence document.”

That’s a major concern. Trump has made antifa — a loosely aligned militant movement of left-wing radicals who believe in using street-level force to prevent the rise of what they see as fascist movements — a centerpiece of his reelection effort. He’s turned the group into a boogeyman of sorts, and it serves as a perfect foil for a president and a conservative movement looking to cast the overwhelmingly peaceful participants in protests over police brutality as a group of violent thugs.

Interesting how ANTIFA and other Far Left militant groups can take over a city without barely a wimpier from soft Do Nothing Democrat leadership, yet these same weak leaders become RADICAL when it comes to shutting down a state or city and its hard working, tax paying citizens!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2020

While there is undoubtedly an antifa presence at some of the recent protests, there is little evidence that antifa is responsible for their (occasional) turns toward violence. Internal FBI assessments and protest-related court documents tell a consistent story: Antifa members are not responsible for the unrest.

But that’s not the story DHS wants to tell. They want to say antifa — and not white supremacist violence, which the FBI in February said is as big a priority as foreign terrorism — is the real problem.

Wolf and other government officials continue to denounce white supremacists and the hate-fueled attacks they perpetrate, but the whistleblower makes clear DHS would prefer to bolster the president’s anti-antifa message than accurately report on the racist threat.

Throughout meetings between the end of May 2020 and July 31, 2020, Wolf and Cuccinelli wanted Murphy to change intelligence assessments to align with Trump’s antifa comments. Murphy “declined to modify any of the intelligence assessments based upon political rhetoric,” and told his bosses the intelligence would reflect reality, not what the president believes.

Whistleblower complaint

On July 31, Wolf told Murphy he was considering reassigning him to a new, lesser post in the management division, and followed through with the move on August 1.

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