Whistleblower details alleged politicization of intelligence at DHS

Complaint filed with watchdog includes claims of interference in intelligence.

September 9, 2020, 2:34 PM

[This report was updated Friday, Sept. 11.]

The former chief of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security has filed a whistleblower complaint describing repeated instances in which he claims the Trump administration sought to “censor or manipulate” intelligence for political purposes, including information about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 elections.

The complaint was filed with the DHS inspector general this week by Brian Murphy, a veteran law enforcement official who until recently ran the agency’s intelligence branch. The document, a copy of which was obtained by ABC News, alleges a pattern of behavior ranging from “attempted abuse of authority” to possible violations of federal law perpetrated by some of the administration’s senior-most law enforcement and intelligence officials.

According to Murphy, in addition to efforts to downplay Russia’s role in election meddling, those leaders sought to downplay the threat posed by domestic white supremacy groups and manipulate statistics about terrorist entries along the southern border.

Over the course of 24 pages, Murphy describes an environment in which senior officials – including former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, current acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and current Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli – scrambled to gather and prepare intelligence reports that aligned with President Donald Trump’s political message and public remarks.

A spokesperson for DHS said in a statement, "The Department generally does not comment on the specifics of OIG referrals, but we flatly deny that there is any truth to the merits of Mr. Murphy’s claim. DHS looks forward to the results of any resulting investigation and we expect it will conclude that no retaliatory action was taken against Mr. Murphy."

Wolf also defended the agency against allegations of politicization in a speech on Wednesday.

"Admidst the shifting series of challenges, a vocal and ill-informed minority has clamored to paint recent DHS actions as examples of mission drift or politicization," he said. "They could not be more wrong."

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks during an event at DHS headquarters in Washington, Sept. 9, 2020.
Susan Walsh/AP

Wolf also defended the agency against allegations of politicization in a speech on Wednesday.

"Admidst the shifting series of challenges, a vocal and ill-informed minority has clamored to paint recent DHS actions as examples of mission drift or politicization," he said. "They could not be more wrong."

In one example dating back to May, Murphy claims he was “instructed” by Wolf “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.”

"Mr. Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien," the complaint reads. "Mr. Murphy informed Mr. Wolf he would not comply with these instructions, as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger."

In another, Murphy says he was asked to “ensure the intelligence assessments he produced for Secretary Nielsen’s review supported the policy argument that large numbers of [known or suspected terrorists] were entering the United States through the southwest border.” Murphy contends the true number “consisted of no more than three” known or suspected terrorists during the previous year. Murphy's complaint takes issue with the administration's use of statistics including "special interest aliens"-- a bigger group than known and suspected terrorists, defined by DHS as individuals with "suspicious travel patterns who may pose a national security risk" -- as well as individuals stopped from entering the country at other entry points, like airports, in publicly reporting much larger figures.

When he provided information for then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, aides would follow up "seeking to have the underlying intelligence data reinterpreted to fit the White House’s policy," Murphy alleged in the complaint.

Murphy also alleged Nielsen misled lawmakers during congressional hearings about the specific number of known or suspected terrorists attempting to enter the country through the southern border, but an attorney for Nielsen vehemently denied that accusation.

James Wareham, Nielsen's attorney, told ABC News Wednesday that Murphy’s allegations “would be laughable if they were not so defamatory.” “A child of six could read the congressional testimony and understand that she never said anything like he said she said,” Wareham said.

In a December 2018 hearing, Nielsen answered a question regarding the southern border wall, and then added, "The idea of having folks go to a point of entry and having impedance and denial as part of a wall system is to ensure that the flow is safe and orderly. What I can tell you is we stopped 3,000 special interest aliens at the border last year. We stopped 10 known and suspected terrorists from attempting to travel to the United States each year."

In a hearing in March 2019, Nielsen acknowledged that a "majority" of known or suspected terrorists were stopped attempting to enter the country via air travel. She declined then to say how many known or suspected terrorists had attempted to cross the southern border, claiming the figure was "classified."

Thursday an attorney for Murphy filed a "supplemental clarification," which was published online by the House intelligence committee, acknowledging that the complaint made an "inaccurate" statement when it claimed Nielsen had testified in December that 3,755 known or suspected terrorists attempted entry through the southern border. But the clarification continued to assert that Nielsen's testimony was misleading -- both regarding her later claim about the number of suspected terrorists stopped was "classified," and the clarification alleges that her statement in December about the 10 suspected terrorists stopped each year was "still false, to the extent it applies to the southwest border, which was the specific topic of the question."

Friday Wareham provided ABC News an additional statement regarding the complaint's correction, saying, “People in this town think nothing of falsely defaming dedicated public servants like Secretary Nielsen. She will no longer tolerate it. I ask that the media give the same attention to the retraction and apology as they did to the libelous statements that preceded it."

In another part of Murphy's complaint, he alleges as recently as July, Murphy claims he “was instructed by Mr. Wolf and/or Mr. Cuccinelli to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups.”

Attorneys now representing Murphy, who was reassigned in August to the management division, encouraged the DHS inspector general to launch an investigation into the matters described in the complaint and what Murphy says were retaliatory actions taken against him for pushing back.

“A thorough investigation will establish that the actions taken or threatened to be taken against Mr. Murphy were done in reprisal for his protected disclosures,” the complaint read.

According to Murphy’s complaint, Miles Taylor, a former deputy chief of staff at DHS who has since left government and been critical of the administration, “intended to seek Mr. Murphy’s termination as a result of his declination to provide intelligence assessments” about possible terrorists sneaking into the U.S. through the southern border – an assessment that “Murphy felt were inconsistent with the underlying intelligence data."

With regard to the controversy about the southern border, Taylor told ABC News late Thursday, “The real story is that White House officials misstated the number of terrorists at the southern border, which is why Secretary Nielsen insisted DHS release a fact sheet to make very clear that few terrorists cross the southern border and most arrive by air."

"The allegation -- that DHS officials tried to artificially play up the number of terrorists at the southern border -- is quite literally the opposite of what happened, is false, and should be immediately retracted," he said.

On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ordered Murphy to appear before his committee later this month. In a letter to Murphy’s legal team, Schiff wrote that the complaint “depicts a sustained and disturbing pattern of misconduct by senior Trump Administration officials.”

Committee Republicans did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Contacted by ABC News, Cuccinelli did not have any immediate response to Murphy's complaint.

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews dismissed the allegations wholesale late Wednesday, accusing Murphy of "politicizing election security" with "specious complaints based on false allegations." She also denied Murphy's claim that O'Brien passed along instructions to limit reporting on Russia's election interference, stating that the national security advisor "has never sought to dictate the Intelligence Community’s focus on threats to the integrity of our elections or on any other topic."

O'Brien called the allegations "hearsay" in a Fox News interview Wednesday.

Murphy’s complaint is likely to fuel mounting concern from critics of the administration that the president and his appointees have sought to politicize the intelligence process to more closely support the administration’s legislative and political goals.

“These allegations, while disturbing, are not surprising,” said John Cohen, a former senior Homeland Security official during the Obama administration.

“There have been long-standing concerns amongst law enforcement and intelligence professionals that under the Trump Administration, intelligence that contradicts the political narrative of the White House is routinely ignored, distorted or blocked from release in order to justify Administration policies that had previously been viewed as unjustifiable,” Cohen added.

A committee official noted that some of the events alleged in the complaint took place as the Trump administration sought to limit in-person election security briefings for House lawmakers.

Last week, ABC News first reported on a draft intelligence bulletin warning of a Russian effort to spread disinformation about Joe Biden's mental health that was initially withheld by senior Homeland Security officials. In response to the original ABC News report, a spokesperson for DHS said the report was delayed because it did not meet the agency's standards.

But in his complaint, Murphy claims that Wolf told him “the intelligence notification should be ‘held’ because it ‘made the President look bad.’”

Last month, Murphy was removed from his post at the DHS intelligence branch and reassigned within the agency after reports emerged that his unit had gathered information about members of the press – a practice that experts said was out of the agency's purview and was alarming and "disheartening."

Murphy claims in his complaint that this “de facto demotion” occurred shortly after he confronted Wolf and Cuccinelli with “concerns that he was being ordered to manipulate intelligence for political reasons.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney for Murphy, released a statement on Wednesday claiming that his client “followed proper lawful whistleblower rules in reporting serious allegations of misconduct against DHS leadership, particularly involving political distortion of intelligence analysis and retaliation.”

“We have alerted both the Executive and Legislative Branches of these allegations and we will appropriately cooperate with oversight investigations,” Zaid continued, “especially in a classified setting."

[Editor's Note: This report was updated Friday, Sept. 11, to clarify the allegations related to the southern border and to include new information from a "clarification" by Murphy's attorney regarding then-Secretary Nielsen's congressional testimony. It also includes an updated statement from Nielsen's attorney and a statement from former DHS official Taylor.]

ABC News' Luke Barr, Katherine Faulders and Ali Dukakis contributed reporting.

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