If Chad Wolf, the man currently running the largest law enforcement agency in the country, had any idea of what was coming, he didn’t show it. On Wednesday, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security stood before his colleagues and delivered the 2020 “State of the Homeland Address,” detailing the many ways in which his department was living up to its post-9/11 mission and supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda. Everyone on the DHS livestream was socially distanced and wearing masks — everyone, that is, but Ken Cuccinelli, the department’s “senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary.”
Last month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that both Wolf and Cuccinelli are illegally occupying their positions atop DHS. But what the two men lack in legal authorization to work, they make up for in fealty to the president. Teeing up the crowd for Wolf’s remarks this week, Cuccinelli spoke of threats to “our cherished homeland” and said that “after decades of putting global interests ahead of the safety and the prosperity of our citizens, this administration has boldly put America first.”
Wolf, a former Transportation Security Administration lobbyist, struck a similar tone in his prepared remarks, drawing applause when he mentioned Homeland Security’s role in policing protests in Portland, Oregon, and his department’s ongoing efforts to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. The event had just barely concluded when the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published a 24-page whistleblower complaint accusing Wolf, Cuccinelli, and other current and former DHS leaders, including former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was also present at Wednesday’s address, of illegally manipulating and politicizing intelligence to bolster the president’s talking points and policy objectives in numerous ways across multiple years.
Department of Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli walks off stage after speaking at an event at DHS headquarters in Washington, Sept. 9, 2020.
Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
The man behind the complaint was Brian Murphy, a war on terror veteran who ran Homeland Security intelligence operations and served as a principle adviser to the secretary of DHS and the director of national security. Though complicated by the fact that Murphy himself had previously been accused of overseeing disturbing surveillance practices earlier this year, the whistleblower complaint marked the latest revelation in a long line of stories suggesting that DHS has become the armed extension of a Trumpian political project.
Murphy’s allegations ranged from inflating the number of known or suspected terrorists crossing the border, to the suppression of intelligence on right-wing terrorists, to the stifling of reports on Russian interference in the coming election. Murphy claimed that his efforts to push back on the senior DHS officials were met with retaliation and a demotion. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chair of the intelligence committee, described his complaint as “grave and disturbing,” adding in a statement, “We will get to the bottom of this, expose any and all misconduct or corruption to the American people, and put a stop to the politicization of intelligence.”
John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the politicization of Homeland Security operations under the Trump administration has been “tremendous,” and that it first began in the border and immigration realms and steadily expanded to include militarized Border Patrol BORTAC units deployed to arrest protesters in a major American city against the wishes of local officials.
“It’s at the point now where it’s really undermining the operational capability of DHS to work with the state and local governments,” Sandweg told The Intercept. “There’s going to be repercussions.”
In his complaint, Murphy claimed that in a series of meetings, Wolf and Cuccinelli personally intervened in an effort to doctor information related to the recent protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd, instructing him to “modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups.” Murphy also claimed that the men improperly inserted themselves in the creation of a “Homeland Treat Assessment” report earlier this year, blocking circulation of the document out of concerns over how it “would reflect upon President Trump.”
Before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chad Wolf testifies to answer questions about federal agents’ use during protests in Portland, Ore., in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6, 2020.
Photo: Toni L. Sandys/POOL/AFP/Getty Images
“Two sections were specifically labeled as concerns: White Supremacy and Russian influence in the United States,” Murphy’s complaint said. The complaint went on to describe a series of meetings in May and June, as protests against police brutality spread to every state in the country, in which “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’s allegations come two months after an investigation by The Intercept that analyzed a trove of hacked law enforcement documents that were posted online under the title “BlueLeaks.” The materials included documents produced at the local, state, and federal level, including Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, otherwise known as I&A, where Murphy worked. The Intercept’s analysis focused on hundreds of documents produced during the recent protests that referenced “antifa,” a loose movement of antifascist political activists, and revealed glaring disparities between law enforcement’s depiction of groups on the right and the left.
In the case of antifa, the documents revealed that law enforcement intelligence was often vague, mixed up in online conspiracy theories or untethered to evidence of suspected criminal activity. On the far right, on the other hand, the documents showed law enforcement agencies across the country sharing detailed and specific information on the mobilization of armed groups looking to use the unrest as cover to attack law enforcement and protesters and set off a civil war. In July, the sergeant of an elite Air Force security unit with ties to the so-called boogaloo movement was arrested on suspicion of assassinating a federal court security officer and killing a California sheriff’s deputy, strongly suggesting that the online threats circulating at the time went beyond mere posturing.
Despite the intelligence circulating in his own office regarding threats from the far right, Cuccinelli continued to keep the focus on the left.
During the protests, I&A shared intelligence that was both dubious and disturbing. On June 2, for example, the office circulated a tweet to law enforcement agencies across the country reporting that antifa was stashing bricks to “fuel protests.” As Mainer magazine later reported, the original source of the information was a pro-Trump biker who called himself “the wolfman” and previously spread conspiracy theories online.
At the same time, I&A circulated intelligence in late May detailing conversations inside an encrypted white supremacist Telegram channel, in which thousands of followers were encouraged to use guns, Molotov cocktails, and chainsaws to attack police and “spread racial hatred.” The following day, I&A published an intelligence note again describing conversations in another white supremacist Telegram channel, in which followers were encouraged to “engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’ — a term used by some violent extremists to refer to the start of a second Civil War — by shooting in a crowd.”
At the time, Trump, along with Wolf, Cuccinelli, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr were agitating for a crackdown on antifa, with Trump calling the movement a terrorist organization and Barr announcing that Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country would be called to root out leftist “agitators.”
The Justice Department has launched hundreds of domestic terrorism investigations in the weeks since, while a Trump Super Pac has used the antifa crackdown to raise money for the president’s reelection efforts.
On June 1, Trump boosted a tweet from Brian Kilmeade, in which the “Fox and Friends” co-host said he saw no evidence of white supremacists mobilizing in response to the protests. “TRUE!” Trump tweeted. Later in the day, Trump delivered an address in the Rose Garden threatening to use the military in response to the “professional anarchists” and antifa elements in the streets. He made no mention of groups on the far right. The next morning, DHS circulated a report acknowledging “media reports” indicating “that neo-Nazi, and other paramilitary far-right groups, are calling for terror attacks during the ongoing unrest throughout the United States.” According to a distribution list at the bottom of the report, the document was shared with the White House Situation Room, DHS headquarters, federal interagency operations centers, and state and local partners.
Despite the intelligence circulating in his own office regarding threats from the far right, Cuccinelli continued to keep the focus on the left, tweeting, “Their silence is deafening. Cities across America burn at the hands of antifa and anarchists while many political leaders are refusing to call it what it is: domestic terrorism.”
Murphy and his office drew national attention in late July, when news broke that I&A had disseminated three Open Source Intelligence Reports summarizing the tweets of a New York Times reporter and the editor of a prominent Washington, D.C. national security blog; both had published unclassified DHS documents related to the Portland protests. At the time, Wolf said he had ordered a stop to the intelligence gathering and launched an investigation into the matter. Murphy was singled out as the official driving the intelligence collection, with sources telling the Washington Post that the former FBI agent had “earned a reputation at DHS for aggressively trying to expand the operations of the intelligence office.”
In his complaint, Murphy said the media reports concerning the collection of information on journalists were “significantly flawed and, in many instances, contained completely erroneous assertions,” and that “I&A never knowingly or deliberately collected information on journalists, at least as far as Mr. Murphy is aware or ever authorized.”
The expansive network of law enforcement fusion centers where I&A directs much of its work product have been the subject of years of criticism for exhibiting a “persistent pattern of violating Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, producing unreliable and ineffective information, and resisting financial and other types of standard public accountability.” As The Intercept reported in late July, I&A under Trump has repeatedly directed its intelligence-gathering efforts at immigration advocates on the border. DHS officials in San Diego oversaw a sweeping, binational intelligence-gathering operation targeting lawyers, journalists, and asylum advocates associated with the migrant caravans that became a key political talking point for the Trump administration during the 2018 midterm elections.
It is unclear what role, if any, Murphy played in those events, though his complaint notes that during his March 2018 to July 2020 tenure, he was “responsible for all intelligence activities in DHS.” He has been called to testify before Congress later this month, where those questions may come up.
Throughout the past three and half years, the leadership of DHS has been steadily hollowed out, resulting in a department increasingly run by allies of Trump’s anti-immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. To many Homeland Security veterans, the ascent of Wolf and Cuccinelli is the disturbing encapsulation of that trend — one former DHS official, speaking to The Intercept on background, described Wolf as a “back bencher” and “literally a joke.”
On Thursday, one day after Murphy’s complaint made news across the country, the White House sent a letter to the Senate formally nominating Wolf to head DHS. Twenty-four hours later, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, subpoenaed Wolf to testify before his committee, noting in a statement that the acting secretary had been dodging the lawmakers’ questions since protests picked up in June.
“This administration has so completely fueled the negative stereotype of the agency, that is going to have real world implications for the agency for years to come, not just in dealing with Congress,” Sandweg said. “I think they’ve done incalculable damage.”
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