For months, leading Democrats have complained that President Donald Trump’s administration is downplaying intelligence assessments that Russia is seeking to interfere again in the 2020 presidential election. Now a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security appears to have corroborated their worst fears — but his allegations may not be as reliable as they hope.
The official in question, Brian Murphy, served until August as the head of the department’s intelligence division. In a formal complaint made public this week, he says he was ordered to downplay the threat of Russian meddling and of white supremacists at the behest of the White House. After he refused to alter his analysis and complained repeatedly to the inspector general and other officials, Murphy claims, he was demoted to a job in the department’s management division.
These are serious charges, and of course Congress should look into them. At the same time, said Miles Taylor, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, these allegations should be treated “very carefully.” He did not say “skeptically.” I am.
Murphy’s whistleblower complaint names Taylor as one of the officials who had threatened reprisal for his earlier complaints. Taylor himself, it should be said, is a kind of whistleblower. Last month he was featured in an ad by Republican Voters Against Trump, endorsing Joe Biden for president. He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post painting a picture of a dysfunctional and capricious president who once asked whether it was possible to put lethal spikes atop the wall along the Mexican border.
Taylor told me that some of Murphy’s allegations are suspect. For example, Murphy claims that he was pressured by Taylor and Nielsen to change his analysis to support the idea that “large numbers” of known or suspected terrorists were entering the U.S. by way of the Mexican border. Nielsen’s refusal to accept Murphy’s numbers led her to deliberately give “false material information” in congressional testimony on Dec. 20, 2018, Murphy writes.
Taylor disputes this. He says Murphy never brought up his concern about these statistics in meetings with himself or the former secretary, and that there is no evidence that Nielsen conveyed inaccurate or false information in her congressional testimony. “The real story is that DHS senior leadership was worried the White House was misstating the number of terrorists that crossed the southern border each year,” he told me. “She ordered a public clarification and fact sheet to explain that very few cross the border each year.”
Murphy also claims he was transferred out of his job in the aftermath of complaints to other senior officials that he was being ordered to “manipulate intelligence for political reasons.” Murphy actually lost his job in the aftermath of a Washington Post story that his office was compiling intelligence reports on journalists covering the riots in Portland, Ore. This was the reason for his demotion Murphy was given at the time by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. Murphy’s whistleblower complaint acknowledges The Post story, but says it was “flawed” or “completely erroneous.”
Murphy also says that he was pressured to produce intelligence analysis of riots this summer to cohere with Trump’s view that the violence was organized by antifa radicals. “Mr. Murphy declined to modify any of the intelligence assessments based upon political rhetoric,” his complaint says.
Maybe so — but Murphy appears to have come to this conclusion on his own. Ben Wittes, the editor of Lawfare, posted a July 25 memo from Murphy directing his subordinates to stop calling violence in Portland “opportunistic,” suggesting the riots and arson in that city were simply the result of crowds getting out of hand. He instead said there was overwhelming intelligence that the violence in Portland was at least inspired by antifa/anarchist ideology.
It’s possible that other allegations in Murphy’s whistleblower complaint are correct. But for now, it’s worth waiting to see if they are verified.
Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.