Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf visits with members of the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division on May 31, 2020. (DHS photo)

Former I&A Leader Tells OIG That Wolf, Cuccinelli Wanted to Downplay Russia, White Supremacist Threats

Former Department of Homeland Security I&A Acting Under Secretary Brian Murphy filed a whistleblower complaint Tuesday with the Office of Inspector General alleging abuse of authority and improper administration of intelligence programs in regard to assessments of terrorists at the southern border, Russian campaign influence operations and the extent of the Antifa threat.

Murphy served as Principal Deputy Under Secretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis from March 2018 until July 31, 2020. His reassignment to Assistant to the Deputy Under Secretary for the DHS Management Division on Aug. 1, the complaint states, was a demotion and retaliation for “protected disclosures … primarily focused on the compilation of intelligence reports and threat assessments that conflicted with policy objectives set forth by the White House and senior Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) personnel.”

He was FBI Section Chief for Partner Engagement in the Intelligence Division before transferring to DHS in 2018. “Prior to his current circumstances, he had never had so much as a negative fitness report in his professional career with the U.S. Government,” the complaint adds.

The complaint says that Murphy reported on Nov. 2, 2018, and May 13, 2019, that he was told his intelligence assessments on known or suspected terrorists at the southern border should be altered to fit the administration’s policy narrative on the border threat. Murphy “declined to censor or manipulate the intelligence information, viewing it as an improper administration of an intelligence program,” and said that despite briefing officials on the intelligence DHS issued a document with “erroneous information” about the number of KSTs at the border.

Murphy said he told former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a March 2019 meeting that “the number of documented KSTs crossing the southwest border only consisted of no more than three individuals, not 3,755 individuals as she had previously attested to in her testimony on December 20, 2018.”

“Mr. Wolf and Mr. Taylor responded by saying Secretary Nielsen should claim the details were classified, state any KST crossing was one too many and deflect away from addressing the significant discrepancy in the data,” the complaint states. “Mr. Murphy advised Secretary Nielsen that he did not believe that was appropriate, and noted that the few ‘known’ KSTs who were apprehended were derivative contacts, in so much as they merely had a name or phone number of a person who was known to be in contact with a terrorist. At that point, Mr. Murphy was removed from the meeting by Mr. Wolf.”

Murphy filed an OIG complaint May 13, 2019, saying that Nielsen deliberately gave misinformation to the House Homeland Security Committee in March 6, 2019, testimony. He said officials began discussing his termination for his “refusal to engage in what he viewed as manipulation and improper administration of an intelligence program.”

The new complaint also alleges that Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli directed that “deep state” individuals compiling intelligence reports be fired or reassigned, which Murphy says he refused to do as such action “based on nothing more than perceived political differences” would not be legal. Murphy’s complaint also states that after former Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence David Glawe testified before Congress in September 2018 about Russian campaign interference President Trump demanded that Glawe be fired, with Nielsen and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly convincing Trump to give Glawe another chance.

The complaint lists multiple classified protected disclosures Murphy made to ODNI and NSC officials, before he took his complaints of improper administration of an intelligence program to Wolf and Cuccinelli. The following month, Murphy says, Wolf “instructed Mr. Murphy 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.” Murphy said he refused to ignore Russia “as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger.” He alleges that in July DHS Chief of Staff John Gountanis told him that an intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation efforts should be held because it “made the president look bad.” Murphy said he objected and Wolf removed him from future meetings on the subject. “It is Mr. Murphy’s assessment that the analysis in the leaked ‘completed draft’ attempts to place the actions of Russia on par with those of Iran and China in a manner that is misleading and inconsistent with the actual intelligence data,” the complaint adds.

Murphy said his DHS I&A team completed a Homeland Threat Assessment in March, and said that in May Cuccinelli said 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.” Wolf ultimately wanted to edit the intelligence assessment, he said, after echoing Cuccinelli’s concerns. “On September 3, 2020, Mr. Murphy learned the new draft was provided to Mr. Wolf, who had ordered the HTA to be redesigned with the policy office completing the revisions,” the complaint states. “It is Mr. Murphy’s assessment that the final version of the HTA will more closely resemble a policy document with references to ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups than an intelligence document as originally formulated by DHS I&A.”

Murphy said 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” and refused.

The complaint says that, despite press reports that DHS had illicitly collected intelligence on journalists, “DHS I&A never collected intelligence information on strictly peaceful protestors.”

“Mr. Wolf stated to Mr. Murphy that although he knew there was no merit to the press allegations, the removal and reassignment of Mr. Murphy would be politically good for Mr. Wolf, who wanted to be officially nominated as the DHS Secretary,” the complaint alleges. Murphy said he told Wolf that “such a reassignment for political gain would constitute an abuse of authority.” Murphy was moved to the Management Division.

“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 spokesperson Alexei Woltornist said in a statement.

“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,” Woltornist said, adding that “DHS is working to address all threats to the homeland regardless of ideology” and that Wolf “is focused on thwarting election interference from any foreign powers and attacks from any extremist group.”

Wolf delivered the annual State of the Homeland address Wednesday at DHS headquarters, in which he listed as department successes over the past year the COVID-19 response, “protecting federal buildings and federal law enforcement officers from an emerging threat of violent rioters,” border security, “tightening our immigration system,” addressing threats from China, and “identifying and preventing malign foreign actors and nation states from interfering in our elections and protecting our election infrastructure.”

“In light of new levels of organized efforts by Russia in 2016 to disrupt and deceive, the department strengthened U.S. efforts to rebuff the aggressive and meddlesome behavior of any nefarious state actor,” Wolf said, adding that “2018 was the most secure election in the modern era.”

“Beyond our shores, we face an ever-changing threat landscape as the governments of China, Iran, and Russia target our election systems, each with its own separate and nefarious motives and tactics,” he said. “But we are ready. This Administration continues to hold these nation-states accountable for their actions, assigning attribution where appropriate, and taking aggressive punitive measures, including sanctions against hostile intelligence services targeting election systems, oligarchs running troll farms, and others attempting to spread disinformation.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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