Whistleblower: DHS officials obstructed intelligence reports

Homeland Security leaders intervened because the reports made the president "look bad," a former top intelligence officer says

Ken Cuccinelli is second in command  at the Department of Homeland Security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ken Cuccinelli is second in command at the Department of Homeland Security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 9, 2020 at 6:10pm

Top Department of Homeland Security officials interfered with intelligence gathering to safeguard the president’s political image and promote his immigration agenda, according to a whistleblower complaint filed with a government watchdog and made public Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee. 

Brian Murphy, who was a top intelligence officer at the department until he was reassigned on July 31, alleges that Chad Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, told him in July to hold an intelligence report on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 elections because it would make President Donald Trump “look bad.” 

Murphy’s complaint to the DHS inspector general also contains numerous mentions of Ken Cuccinelli, the department's second highest official. Murphy said that Cuccinelli ordered him in December 2019 to reassign or fire analysts who compiled intelligence on Central American countries, suggesting those employees were a part of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the president’s push to restrict asylum.

The intelligence reports detailed high levels of corruption, violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and were meant to help asylum officers assess claims from migrants coming from those countries. According to Murphy, Cuccinelli “expressed frustration” with the inclusion of such details.

Murphy said he told his boss at the time that Cuccinelli’s order to fire the authors of the reports was illegal and “an abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program,” according to the complaint. The two officials did not implement Cuccinelli’s orders, Murphy notes. 

Murphy also writes that in May 2020, Cuccinelli asked him to modify sections of a homeland threat assessment report — specifically, he wanted a section on white supremacist threats to be softened and information bolstering the threat of "violent 'left-wing' groups" be added. 

The DHS public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the whistleblower’s allegations. 

Wolf and Cuccinelli have implemented some of Trump's most restrictive immigration policies at the southern border, including a blanket ban on migrants seeking asylum during the pandemic. They have also repeatedly defended the deployment of armed federal troops and Homeland Security agents in Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and other cities amid mass protests against police brutality. 

After the release of the whistleblower complaint, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Murphy requesting he testify before his panel on Sept. 21.

“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. This puts our nation and its security at grave risk," Schiff wrote.

[GAO says Wolf, Cuccinelli appointments at DHS invalid]

Murphy's complaint follows an Aug. 14 legal assessment by the Government Accountability Office, which found that Wolf and Cuccinelli’s appointments to their current roles were invalid because they did not follow the proper rules of succession. Those findings were noted by some Democrats in their response to Murphy's allegations.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, described Murphy's complaint as "a damning – but wholly unsurprising – indictment" of the Trump administration and DHS leaders. 

“As Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli – who are not even serving in their positions legally – continue to ratchet up their politicization of the Department in order the preserve the President’s political future, they are endangering our national security, compromising the legitimacy of the upcoming election, and feeding misinformation to the American people and Congress,” Thompson said in a statement.