Whistleblower accuses Trump appointees of downplaying Russian interference, White supremacist threat

September 27, 2021
Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf with the then US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf with the then US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

WASHINGTON — A whistleblower is alleging that top political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly instructed career officials to modify intelligence assessments to suit President Donald Trump's agenda by downplaying Russia's efforts to interfere in the US and the threat posed by White supremacists, according to documents reviewed by CNN and a source familiar with the situation.

The whistleblower claims that acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf instructed DHS officials earlier this year to "cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference" and, instead, focus their efforts on gathering information related to activities being carried out by China and Iran.

Trump and several of his top national security advisers have repeatedly sought to emphasize the threat posed by China in recent months while downplaying the intelligence community's warnings related to Russian interference in the 2020 election.

DHS did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment regarding allegations that Wolf and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli ordered officials to change intelligence assessments for political reasons but have broadly denied either man took actions that constitute as an abuse of power, as stated in the complaint.

The complaint also alleges that Wolf and Cuccinelli, both Trump appointees, directed officials to change intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with misleading public comments from Trump about Antifa and "anarchist" groups, according to a complaint filed with the DHS inspector general.

Separately, both Wolf and Cuccinelli also tried to alter a report to downplay the threat posed by White supremacists and instead emphasize the role of leftist groups due to concerns about how the initial language would reflect on the president, according to a source familiar with the claims raised by the whistleblower.

The allegations were raised in a complaint filed recently by Brian Murphy to the DHS inspector general. Murphy previously oversaw the intelligence division at the department but was reassigned this summer after it was revealed his office had gathered intelligence reports on two US journalists. Murphy claims that his reassignment was retaliatory and motivated by political considerations — amounting to an abuse of authority by Wolf.

But if true, the actions detailed in the complaint mark yet another example of Trump officials attempting to adjust or minimize intelligence that does not align with the administration's political priorities.

"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," Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement following CNN's reporting.

"Murphy's allegations are serious — from senior officials suppressing intelligence reports on Russia's election interference and making false statements to Congress about terrorism threats at our southern border, to modifying intelligence assessments to match the president's rhetoric on Antifa and minimizing the threat posed by White supremacists. We have requested Murphy's testimony before the Committee, pursuant to subpoena if necessary, alongside other already scheduled interviews with other DHS officials," he said.

The complaint also includes stark allegations related to intelligence on Russian interference in the US. Murphy says that in May Wolf instructed him to "cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the US and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran," according to the documents obtained by CNN.

Wolf stated these instructions came from National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, according to the complaint. It also says Murphy told Wolf he would not comply with these instructions because doing so would "put the country in substantial and significant danger," the documents say.

The complaint also says that in June the DHS chief of staff told Murphy to "cease any dissemination of an intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation activities" until Murphy discussed the matter with Wolf directly.

DHS spokesman Alexei Woltornist said in a statement to CNN late Wednesday that "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 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," he added.

National security adviser Robert O'Brien denied knowing Murphy when asked about the allegations included in the complaint, telling Fox News: "I don't know who he is and it's hearsay."

These new allegations come as intelligence officials have said there is evidence that Russia is currently interfering in the election to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign.

But while the intelligence community has assessed that China and Iran prefer Trump to lose in November, officials have offered no indication, to date, that either country is acting on that preference in the same way as Russia, according to public statements issued by the intelligence community and sources familiar with the underlying evidence.

The Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee has requested Murphy testify about the claims detailed in his complaint, which "alleges repeated violations of laws and regulations, abuses of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence the US elections," according to a letter sent to Murphy's lawyers Wednesday.

"Last month, in a bid to prevent informing the American people and its elected representatives about Russian efforts to help President Trump and hurt Joe Biden, the Trump Administration announced that it would cease briefing Congress in person, and rely on written products alone.

“But if written products are being altered for political reasons, or worse withheld entirely, how can the American people trust that this Administration will inform voters on how foreign powers are trying to influence them, or where the threats really come from, and protect our national security — particularly when it contradicts the president's preferred narrative or personal political interests? In short, they can't, and that's dangerous," Schiff said in his statement Wednesday.

Murphy says that he refused to modify intelligence assessments so that they more closely aligned with Trump's rhetoric about Antifa and other groups, telling Wolf and Cuccinelli that he would only report accurate information as collected by DHS, according to the complaint.

He also refused to alter the draft versions of the report warning of the threat posed by White supremacists, prompting Wolf and Cuccinelli to halt work on the document, the complaint states. The move to block the final report came in July from Wolf and Cuccinelli, the source familiar with the issue said.

Murphy first argued with Cuccinelli then Wolf, pushing back against changes to the draft version of the report that would have watered-down language pertaining to White supremacists and added additional information about leftist groups like those the Trump administration has portrayed as a top threat to the US ahead of the November presidential election, according to the complaint.

When Murphy refused to implement the changes as directed, Cuccinelli and Wolf stopped the report from being finished, the source said.

Drafts of the report, first published by the national security website Lawfare, show that an initial description of White supremacists "presenting the most lethal threat" to the homeland was changed in subsequent drafts to say "domestic violent extremists." The language about the White supremacist threat varies slightly in the different drafts but they all state it is the deadliest. It has not been known until now why the changes were made.

Separately, the complaint says, Cuccinelli expressed frustration with intelligence reports detailing conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, late last year and accused "deep-state intelligence analysts" of compiling the information to undermine Trump's objectives regarding asylum, according to the documents reviewed by CNN.

Woltornist denied the allegations about Wolf and Cuccinelli related to the report on White supremacists, telling CNN: "These allegations are patently untrue. DHS leadership has called out all threats to the homeland regardless of ideology."

Additionally, the complaint included allegations against former DHS official and current CNN contributor Miles Taylor, who Murphy says was part of a pressure campaign against him to provide intelligence "assessments regarding known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) that Murphy felt were inconsistent with the underlying intelligence data."

Asked about Murphy's allegations, Taylor told CNN Wednesday: "The real story here is that the White House was inappropriately referencing the number of individuals crossing the border with ties to terrorism so the DHS secretary (Nielsen) thought it was very important to urgently release a fact sheet to explain the number of terrorists crossing southern border was very low and help people know the difference between known or suspected terrorists and special interest aliens."

"We were worried people at the White House were conflating the number of special interest aliens and known or suspected terrorists," he added.

Wolf did address the threat posed by White supremacists Wednesday while delivering his "State of the Homeland" address, saying: "DHS stands in absolute opposition to any form of violent extremism. Whether by white supremacist extremists or anarchist extremists," he said.

But news of the whistleblower allegations come amid widespread concerns about politicization within DHS and indications that the agency has suppressed other intelligence that is politically inconvenient for the president.

They also surface at a time when Trump and his top officials, most notably Attorney General William Barr, have emphasized the threat posed by leftist groups like Antifa, but rarely mentioned right-wing groups involved in some of the violence during recent protests in the US.

Barr has created a task force to study the group's infrastructure, but prosecutors haven't specifically tied charges to the movement. Trump himself has regularly downplayed the threat of White supremacist violence during his presidency, most notably when he said there were some "fine people" among the extremists who sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. He's also called Black Lives Matter a "symbol of hate" and has regularly pushed narratives on Twitter that emphasize violence against White Americans as he seeks to curry support in the suburbs.

Officials in his administration, however, have warned against White supremacist extremism. White supremacy is 'most lethal threat' to the US, DHS draft assessment says

Last year, CNN reported that White House officials rebuffed efforts by their DHS colleagues for more than a year to make combating domestic terror threats, such as those from White supremacists, a greater priority as specifically spelled out in the National Counterterrorism Strategy.

Then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said last year White supremacist extremism is one of the most "potent ideologies" driving acts violence in the US, when he released the department's counterterrorism strategy, outlining the ongoing threats from foreign terrorism and focusing on domestic terror threats, particularly White supremacists.

"In our modern age, the continued menace of racially based violent extremism, particularly White supremacist extremism, is an abhorrent affront to the nation, the struggle and unity of its diverse population," he said in a speech at the Brookings Institution almost a year ago.

The threat assessment was prompted by a 2019 DHS counterterrorism strategy that called for annual reports to inform government officials and the public.

The earliest available version of the "State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020" drafts reads: "We judge that ideologically-motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the Homeland through 2021, with white supremacist extremists presenting the most lethal threat."

The lead section on terror threats to the homeland is changed in the latter two drafts to replace "white supremacist extremists" with "Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat."

The reports, however, all contain this language: "Among DVEs [Domestic Violent Extremists], we judge that white supremacist extremists (WSEs) will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland through 2021."

Lawfare's editor in chief Benjamin Wittes published the documents because he wanted there to be a "benchmark about what the career folks at DHS actually assessed the threats to be against" the final product that is released by the department.

He told CNN that "the most striking thing is in this political atmosphere; they have said what they said" —- that White supremacist violence is the threat they are most concerned about.

"I don't want to criticize them when that language is there. That said it is somewhat different in the first draft than the subsequent two and I do think the nature of the change is notable as a reflection of the political pressure they are under," he said. — CNN

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