Politics

Why the Latest Intelligence Whistleblower’s Allegations Matter

It’s striking to see laid bare how the Trump White House manipulated intelligence reports to its advantage.

Chad Wolf holds up both his hands while speaking.
Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf testifies before Congress on Aug. 6. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Last week, the Washington Post’s Shane Harris was one of the very first people to get his hands on a Trump administration whistleblower report. The allegations, coming from Brian Murphy, who was the head of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security, are about how intelligence has been manipulated by DHS—intelligence about immigration, election security, and domestic terrorism. To Harris, it’s “quite striking” to see such a top level official—a career national security guy who seemed pretty on board with the administration’s “law and order” message—speaking out.

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Harris about what these latest allegations mean and why we shouldn’t let ourselves go numb to all the evidence stacking up against Donald Trump’s White House. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Can we tick off exactly whats in the complaint from Brian Murphy?

Shane Harris: The most serious allegation comes from back in May, in which he says on two separate occasions he was told to essentially stand down from his office compiling any reports about Russia’s interference in the 2020 election. In one instance, he says that acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told him I don’t want you writing any reports about Russian interference because “it makes the president look bad.” So this was specifically in order to help the president, he says. He says that Wolf told him, in addition to not reporting on Russia, I want you to spin up your focus on Iran and China and make more reports about their election interference.

Murphy objected to this, saying essentially that what Russia is doing is in a category of its own. And what Iran and China are doing isn’t the same thing. And if we try to tell the public Iran and China are the big threats to worry about, we’re going to be misleading the public on this very serious issue. And he says that he was told by Wolf that this order came directly from Robert O’Brien, who is the White House national security adviser. So there he’s alleging the White House is putting its thumb on the scale and trying to color the intelligence in a way that looks better for President Trump specifically.

He’s really laying out a breadcrumb trail, saying, I heard this from this person. He heard this from that person. Go figure it out.

Exactly. He’s telling an investigator, These are people you should go talk to. And this is the date that it happened. And this theme here that he’s laying out of the Trump administration trying to fudge, or color, or shade intelligence reports, that is the overall theme of all his allegations.

Another one that he details from some time ago deals with pressure that he says was applied on the office to inflate the number of known suspected terrorists—they’re called KSTs in the parlance—that were being detected crossing the border with Mexico in order to provide more justification for building the president’s border wall. The reality is that a handful—in the single digits probably—of these so-called KSTs are ever confirmed. The administration, he says, wanted to say that there were thousands of these known suspected terrorists, which is just so wildly inaccurate, according to people we’ve talked to.

Wow.

And on separate occasions, he was told to amplify, or put more information in, reports about far-left groups and antifa groups and their role in the protests that we’ve seen. So he says in this instance, Ken Cuccinelli tells him more or less to juke up the numbers and the language on antifa and tamp down the language on white supremacists and far-right groups, when we know that actually FBI and DHS and others have actually studied this and found the far-right extremists are more of a homeland security threat. And that antifa and far-left groups are not really driving these protests. So, he says again, here is the White House and the administration trying to color these reports in a way that fits the political argument that the president is out there making on the campaign trail.

Part of what I think is interesting about the complaint is that it builds on itself. The complaint encompasses years of disagreements between Murphy and his bosses about what to say. It starts with these fine-grain details, and then it builds to what was going on this spring and summer where it sounds like the new leadership of the Department of Homeland Security came in and basically said, Listen, we need to not be talking about Russian intelligence threats to the election because thats going to be threatening to the president. And so in some ways, it creates a very strong narrative and you can see things getting more extreme. I dont know if you saw it that way.

I did. What he is alleging here is not an instance of behavior. He’s alleging a pattern of behavior that each one of these allegations is of a piece with the overall pressure that he says has been applied for years now by the administration to color intelligence and distort the facts to fit a political narrative and a political argument. And importantly, Brian Murphy, although he is a very senior witness to all of these alleged activities, is hardly the only one providing evidence of that. Just looking at Russian election interference in the past month or so, the director of national intelligence put out a statement talking about the threat from Russia, China, and Iran and immediately got opposition from Democrats and experts saying, Why are you putting all of these three countries together? Why are you conflating this in a way that makes it look like they’re all on the same playing field when Russia, we know, is the one that’s actively trying to hurt Joe Biden and help Donald Trump and these other two countries are kind of in the realm of election security? It’s clearly not the same. Why are you confusing people? Enter Brian Murphy saying, Hey, this was happening at my department, too. I saw it happening. I objected to it when it happened and now I’m going to lay it all out in a story. Frankly, it’s quite breathtaking to hear this level of manipulation of intelligence, which is what he’s essentially alleging.

There may be some people who hear about this complaint and think, so what? Didn’t we know this? After all we’ve seen over the summer, with how the Department of Homeland Security has been used when it comes to protests in Portland, when it comes to border security—why should we click in to these office struggles at DHS that seem to show us what we might feel like we already know?

As somebody who reports on intelligence, I’m highly aware of the very ugly history that this country has of abusing intelligence authorities and national security powers to political ends. The laws that we have in place now came out of the era of Watergate and the FBI spying on protesters in the Vietnam War and wiretapping Martin Luther King—real abuses of civil liberty and government power to constrain people’s First Amendment rights and in many cases to trample them. And so when we see allegations that a presidential administration is trying to manipulate information or use these national security authorities for political ends, that should be setting off alarm bells everywhere. This is precisely how we have tried to construct our intelligence community not to perform. The way that we have a strong national security apparatus in a free and open society is to have transparent regulation of that system and to have rules and boundaries that you can’t cross.

It stood out to me that just a few days after your reporting into what happened here in the Department of Homeland Security, there was reporting that the administration has been interfering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their reporting about the coronavirus, which almost seemed like the same thing, transferred to another agency. And I wonder if you see those two reports as kind of companions in a way. 

I do, because I think that the president, who lies repeatedly, views the entire government as an apparatus that is supposed to be in service of him and helping him win an argument. And I think that you can view pressure on the CDC or the DHS or any other agency to change information, to color information, to take out inconvenient facts and put new facts in that help your argument—that’s not just spin. What we’re talking about here is distortion and manipulation, and it’s just standard procedure in so many cases in this administration. I think people are kind of numb to that because they think all presidents lie and all administrations try to win an argument. But this is just qualitatively different. You’re talking about marching orders that have gone out to senior officials in government to manipulate official reporting down into the bowels of bureaucracies in a way that doesn’t make the president look bad or that helps give him talking points. That is anathema to the way that the intelligence community is supposed to work. Certainly, it’s not what we think of when we talk about the president trying to preserve the public trust. This is turning government into almost essentially an arm of his campaign.

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