Homeland Security Officials Modified Intelligence Reports to Downplay Politically-Inconvenient Threats

Published Nov 5, 2020

What happened: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials delayed or modified several intelligence reports on the threat of Russian political interference in the US, including the Russian threat to the US presidential election.

Why it matters: Like other governmental agencies, DHS fulfills its mission by carrying out evidence-based decisions that are reliant on unbiased and robust data and assessments. When senior officials at the DHS attempt to modify the intelligence reports for political reasons, they are also diminishing our ability to effectively respond to the threats that endanger the safety of people across the US.

According to a whistleblower complaint, several DHS intelligence reports were delayed or modified for political reasons. The whistleblower, Brian Murphy, who was previously in charge of intelligence and analysis at DHS, stated that he was asked to not report on the threat of Russian interference in the US, including Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election and likely during the 2020 election. Additionally, Murphy stated that senior DHS officials told him to modify other intelligence reports, including a report about white supremacists and an assessment about known or suspected terrorists.

According to the whistleblower complaint, “Mr. Murphy made several protected disclosures between March 2018 and August 2020 regarding a repeated pattern of abuse of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence and undermine United States interests.” Murphy repeatedly stated in the whistleblower complaint that he believed that DHS senior leadership asked him to carry out these actions in order to fall in line with President Trump’s public statements.

One of the issues involved an “intelligence notification,” a type of report that is routinely shared with the FBI, other federal law enforcement agencies, and state and local governments. Murphy contends that in July 2020 Chad Wolf, the Acting Director of Homeland Security, told him that an intelligence notification report that included information regarding Russian disinformation efforts should be “held” because it “made the President look bad.” When Murphy refused to bury the report, Wolf took steps to exclude Murphy from all future meetings on the report. An analysis in the report that attempted to place the actions of Russia on par with those of Iran and China was misleading and inconsistent with the actual intelligence data, according to Murphy.

Murphy stated that he was asked to censor another DHS report, the Homeland Threat Assessment (HTA). The HTA, which was published in October 2020, was designed to “provide the American people with an overview of the information collected and analyzed by DHS employees around the world” by identifying “the primary threats facing the United States of America at and inside our borders.” In May and June 2020, DHS officials blocked the further distribution of the completed HTA report because of concerns about the sections on white supremacy and Russian interference in the US. Specifically, Murphy was told by Ken Cuccinelli, the Deputy Secretary of DHS, to modify the HTA’s section on white supremacy to make the threat appear less severe and to include information on the prominence of violent “left-wing” groups. Murphy declined, stating that such modifications would constitute censorship of the analysis. The final version of the report does not appear to include these political edits.

In October 2018, Murphy faced pressure from senior DHS leadership to ensure that the intelligence assessments that he was producing for Kirstjen Nielsen, then-Secretary of Homeland Security, supported the policy argument that a large number of known or suspected terrorists were entering the US through its southwest border. Murphy declined to censor or manipulate the intelligence information, stating that doing so would constitute a felony. Another senior DHS official, David Glawe, was pressured to hand over the underlying intelligence data so that senior leadership could reinterpret the data to fit the White House’s policy argument.

The assessments and data compiled by DHS are vital to the decisionmaking processes of numerous governmental and law enforcement agencies. Purposefully modifying these evidence-based reports for political reasons only serves to weaken the ability to protect the people in US from major threats like white supremacist groups and Russian disinformation campaigns.