DHS whistleblower: Intelligence on Russian election interference withheld because it made Trump 'look bad'

Jenna McLaughlin and Christopher Wilson
·Staff
·8 mins read

In a newly released complaint, a whistleblower alleges that President Trump’s acting Department of Homeland Security secretary ordered him to hold back intelligence on Russian election interference because it “made the President look bad.” The complaint also alleges that in anticipation of the presidential election, DHS officials sought to downplay the dangers of white supremacy amid ongoing nationwide protests over racial inequality.

In the complaint, filed Tuesday to the DHS office of the inspector general, Brian Murphy describes “a repeated pattern of abuse of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence and undermine United States interests.” According to Murphy, who served as a Marine and FBI special agent before transitioning to the DHS, his efforts to report the malfeasance through internal channels between 2018 and 2020 resulted in his demotion from the role of principal deputy undersecretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

Murphy also claims that Trump wanted to fire then-DHS Undersecretary David Glawe after Glawe testified in 2018 that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. After a meeting with Trump at the White House, Murphy said Glawe informed him that Murphy “was on his own when it came to election interference assessments.”

President Trump at the White House on Wednesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
President Trump at the White House on Wednesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, published Murphy’s complaint Wednesday afternoon as a part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into the Department of Homeland Security. “The whistleblower retaliation complaint filed by former Acting Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Brian Murphy outlines grave and disturbing allegations that senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials improperly sought to politicize, manipulate, and censor intelligence in order to benefit President Trump politically,” wrote Schiff, a Democrat from California, in a statement. “This puts our nation and its security at grave risk.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

In a letter to Murphy’s attorney Mark Zaid, Schiff requested that Murphy testify before the committee about the administration’s efforts to obstruct intelligence reporting on election interference, its distortion of the threats posed by white supremacists and the leftist antifa network, as well as possible false statements made to Congress by administration officials.

When asked if Murphy would testify before Congress, Zaid told Yahoo News that his client would cooperate with official requests as required by law. However, Zaid added that it’s likely any testimony would take place behind closed doors.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

According to the complaint, in mid-May Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf instructed Murphy to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the U.S. and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran. According to Murphy, Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Murphy said he told Wolf he would not comply with these instructions, as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger. The Office of Intelligence and Analysis within the DHS is a smaller, more domestic-focused shop within the broader intelligence community that for several years has dealt with concerns over protecting U.S. privacy. However, following extensive Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the DHS and its components have played a large role in monitoring and reporting on election interference within the U.S.

One intelligence official who requested anonymity expressed some skepticism toward Murphy’s claims, insisting that both Russian interference and terrorist threats remain “a priority,” including at high-level meetings. “Any changes to products or priorities would have been published and pushed out,” the official said, noting that the FBI and the DHS have published a large number of reports on the threat of white supremacy in recent months and years. Additionally, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently published a wide-ranging assessment of threats posed to the November elections by foreign interference, mentioning not just China and Iran but also Russia. It’s unclear how many of those assessments were specifically briefed to the president.

In early July, Murphy claimed he had the conversation with Wolf about how the report would make Trump look bad. After that, Murphy says he was excluded from relevant future meetings and that a draft completed without his involvement was leaked to the media “by unknown individuals.”

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Murphy is not the first whistleblower in the Trump administration to suffer the personal and professional consequences of reporting his concerns through official channels. Alexander Vindman, the whistleblower who reported Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine in order to apply pressure for investigations into Trump’s political rival Joe Biden, was consistently harassed and exposed by the president and his allies.

Presidential Policy Directive 19, signed by then-President Barack Obama, was designed to provide protections for intelligence community employees who have access to classified information and report allegations of wrongdoing, fraud, waste or abuse — and who suffer retaliation for making those disclosures. However, intelligence community employees have found limited relief after a number of years of trying to make use of those rights — and it’s unclear how those protections would apply to Murphy’s complaint.

“This might well be unlawful retaliation. No federal worker — whether they be a low-level analyst or a senior executive — should fear retaliation for making a protected disclosure. The inspector general should open a whistleblower retaliation investigation, hear from witnesses, review relevant documents, and determine whether Department leaders retaliated against Mr. Murphy,” wrote Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst at the whistleblower protection nonprofit Government Accountability Project. “If they did, they broke the law. Whistleblower protections exist to stop exactly the kind of retaliation described in Mr. Murphy’s complaint from happening.”

Regardless, experts say the disclosure fits within a pattern of intelligence community officials standing up to Trump despite the consequences.

“These allegations in this whistleblower complaint, if true, demonstrate the gravest fear of any intelligence professional — having to decide between your career and your adherence to the values of impartiality, honesty, and fealty to the Constitution,” wrote Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Hayden Center at George Mason University and 30-year veteran of the intelligence community, in an email to Yahoo News. “Mr. Murphy appears to have chosen the latter — as would all good career intelligence professionals — to his own personal detriment. Sadly, he joins others who have paid this price in this Administration.”

Murphy also alleges that former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen knowingly submitted false testimony to Congress on multiple occasions in 2018 and 2019 about the number of known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) crossing the United States’ southern border. In one instance, Murphy claimed that Nielsen said 3,755 KSTs had crossed the border when in actuality it was no more than three. In a separate instance, Murphy said acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told him “deep state intelligence analysts” were attempting to undermine Trump’s immigration policy.

Additionally, Murphy stated that Wolf wanted to downplay the potential dangers of white supremacist groups while including references to “anarchist” and antifa groups absent from a Homeland Threat Assessment he was authoring. Murphy said that in May and June, Cuccinelli told him he “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 declined to make the modifications and learned of a new draft in September, noting it was his belief that the final version will more closely resemble the draft envisioned by Cuccinelli. Murphy alleged that on multiple occasions Wolf and Cuccinelli urged him to “modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump.”

Murphy’s allegations are in line with the administration’s consistent stance of downplaying the threat of right-wing extremist groups, despite numerous instances of violence, while stating that left-wing protest groups such as antifa are an extreme threat to the country, despite limited arrests. Trump has called supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory “people that love our country” despite a 2019 FBI report referring to them as “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.”

In June, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report stating that “far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.”

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