Another Whistleblower Comes Forward

Listen to this episode

S1: Last week, Shane Harris over at The Washington Post was one of the very first people to get his hands on a brand new Trump administration whistleblower report. Yeah, another one.

S2: Yeah, it is a heck of a report. It’s very dense. It has something around eight separate allegations.

S1: These allegations are about how intelligence has been manipulated over at the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence about immigration, election security, domestic terrorism. But to Shane, it’s not just what the whistleblower is saying that stands out.

S2: What was really striking and that I was not prepared for was who was making these allegations. They’re coming from a guy named Brian Murphy, who is until recently was the head of intelligence for the Homeland Security Department and is somebody who is running the office that he says is being subjected to manipulation by the president. He has dates, he has conversations attributed to people by name, so he says, you know, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said this on this date or the deputy secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, said the following to me. And these are all pieces of information.

S3: These are all allegations that can be substantiated or refuted. So he’s basically handed over a road map of these allegations. He’s kind of brought the receipts. This is a top, top level person at the leadership level. It’s quite striking.

S1: Did you know about this guy before this complaint was filed?

S2: I knew about Brian Murphy because I had written a series of articles about intelligence activities that the office he runs was engaged in.

S1: In the article Shane was writing a few weeks back, Murphy was the tyrant of the story, not the hero, Shane reported. Murphy’s office had compiled intelligence reports on journalists covering the unrest in Portland. After that story came out, Murphy got demoted.

S2: Murphy was very much portrayed by the leadership of the department as the bad actor here, the one who had been overseeing this wholly inappropriate kind of activity that infringed on the First Amendment. And the secretary of the acting secretary, Chad Wolf, put out a statement saying, this is unacceptable. I’m ordering an investigation. And Murphy was removed within a day or so. Of those reports coming out, now comes Murphy to say, no, no, no, you don’t know the whole story. I’m the one who’s been keeping really bad stuff from happening. And I’ve been getting pressure for years now from people in the White House to change and manipulate and abuse the authorities of this intelligence office that I run.

S1: Today on the show, who’s to blame for misleading intelligence analysis at the Department of Homeland Security after a summer in which the department’s work seemed increasingly political, this whistleblower is offering some answers.

S4: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: One of the things that made Brian Murphy’s complaint so interesting to Shane Harris is that Murphy is a career national security guy. He seemed pretty on board with the administration’s law and order messaging.

S2: So Brian Murphy started out his career. Well, he has he has both been an FBI agent and he has been in the armed forces serving overseas after 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, he actually worked terrorism cases for the bureau and then signed up and served in the military and then actually was brought back to work in the bureau again and worked on a famous case about terrorism financing as well. So he’s kind of been, you know, in the thick of it, as it were, for the FBI and we used to call the war on terrorism. So that’s kind of where he’s forged is out there, working cases, gathering evidence, developing sources and crowds are gathering this evidence to ultimately try and disrupt terrorist attacks and also to help prosecutions. He then goes over to the Homeland Security Department and for some time was serving as the the deputy to the undersecretary for intelligence and analysis. So what does that mean? That is it’s also called I and I say that is the part of the Homeland Security Department, which remember is this massive department that deals with securing aviation. And they do the TSA checks at the airport and it’s the Border Patrol. It’s the Coast Guard. Ianna is kind of this tinier division in there. That is DHS is contribution to the broader intelligence community. And, of course, the intelligence community is the CIA, the FBI, the NSA. Those are kind of the big three letter agencies that we know.

S1: Yeah, I mean, at some point I I talked to another reporter about this particular part of the agency, and it was funny. He was like, yeah, they’re kind of like the junior intelligence division. He you know, it sounded like this particular unit inside the Department of Homeland Security was sort of struggling to define itself.

S2: That is definitely true. And frankly, even people who work there will tell you that even though there are many competent and fine analysts there, they are not the FBI, they’re not the CIA, they’re not the NSA, they’re not the big kids on the block. They are a much more junior partner. Junior varsity is a word that I’ve used in a story that I’ve written about them. And there are people deep in the CIA who kind of roll their eyes at them and say, like, you know, what value are they really adding? Because it’s not like they’re going out and recruiting assets or spies. They’re not gathering intelligence the way the CIA or the FBI might or the NSA. They’re kind of analyzing things or analyzing a lot of stuff that’s in the news. And they’re kind of focused more on the homeland security mission, which is about internal security. Border security really is kind of DHS. It’s kind of become a big border security agency, to be honest. And these other agencies are much more focused on global politics and foreign leaders and stuff that, frankly, is kind of sexier and has a longer history. And they don’t really hold in a in really high esteem.

S1: It’s important to remember the underdog mentality at Ianna when you’re considering the whistleblower complaint filed by Brian Murphy. This is a guy who felt thwarted by his employer in a couple of ways.

S2: He’s he wants to sort of beef up in a and like and make it even a bigger player than it is and expose you can’t hold him again. Hold that against him. He wants to do the best job he can. But there are people who work in the office who feel that he has been trying to craft it into some kind of miniature FBI or something that looks like one of more of the big players. And I think that his personality that drives a lot of that ambition that does come across in the report, he’s somebody with just a very strong sense of right and wrong and what the mission of that office is, you know, for better or for worse. And I think that comports with how he’s been described to me by people who’ve worked with them.

S1: Can we just tick off exactly what’s in the complaint from Brian Murphy? Because it does to me, when I look at it, it has a kind of narrative like the allegations aren’t all connected, but they seem to build on each other. So I wonder if you can just lay out a few of the allegations in here.

S2: Sure. The most serious of them, I think, comes from back in May, late that month, 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 twenty twenty election. In one instance, he says that secretary Acting Secretary Wolf told him, I don’t want you writing any reports about Russian interference because, quote, it makes the president look bad. So this was specifically in order to stop doing this, in order to help the president. He says and there are other indications there as well that we have that the administration was applying pressure. In a separate conversation, 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 with Iran and China are doing aren’t the same thing. And if we try and tell the public Iran and China are the big threats to worry about, we’re going to be misleading the public in 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 putting its thumb on the scale and trying to color the intelligence in a way that looks better for President Trump specifically and really laying out like a breadcrumb trail, like saying I heard this from this person.

S1: He heard this from that person. Go figure it out.

S2: Exactly. He’s telling an investigator, these are the people you should go talk to. And this is the date that it happened. He even says one of these conversations happened after a deputies level meeting at the National Security Council. Well, I mean, they’ll be able to find the date and find everybody who was in that meeting and trace it back and ask them, do you think that’s what order was being conveyed? 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 from some time ago deals with pressure that he says was applied on the office to inflate the number of known suspected terrorists there called Countys, 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 Ts are ever confirmed. You know, 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 in a separate occasion, he was told to amplify or put more information, reports about far left groups and antifa groups and their role in the protests that we’ve seen then he, Murphey thought was justified by the facts. So he says in this instance, Ken Cuccinelli tells him more or less juk up the numbers and the language on Antifa and tamp down the language is in these reports on white supremacist and far right groups. When we know that actually FBI and DHS and others have actually studied this and found a 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.

S1: Part of what I think is interesting about the complaint is that it builds on itself, you know, the complaint encompasses years of disagreements between Murphy and his bosses about what to say. And it sort of starts with, you know, you mentioned the difference between known terrorists coming across the border and just sort of suspected people who might be connected to terrorism and these sort of fine green details and things that people sometimes acted on and sometimes didn’t basically just like hints of something not quite right. 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 that’s 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 don’t know if you saw it that way.

S2: I did. I mean, 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. I mean, just looking at Russian election interference in the past month or so, the director of National Intelligence, which kind of oversees all of the intelligence agencies and has election security in its portfolio, 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 and it’s in your own reporting, DNI 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, but it’s clearly not the same. Why are you confusing people? Well, 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.

S1: Now, you’ve mentioned how Murphy isn’t a perfect witness here. So have you and other reporters been able to confirm what he what he’s alleging here?

S2: We’ve definitely been able to confirm the issue around pressure to inflate the number of known suspected terrorists crossing the border. I think there’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that the administration has been clearly leaning into blaming Antifa for protests when I think there’s lots of data to suggest that they’re not some kind of driver of the protests. And then we’re, of course, looking into other allegations of this as well, particularly on the Russian threat in the elections. I will say broadly so far, with the exception of some some errors and dates that he has subsequently corrected publicly, that, yeah, his information checks out. And I certainly think that thematically it checks out not only with what we’ve seen publicly, but what my reporting has been for a couple of months now about how the administration is approaching dealing with election interference. I think it’s a credible document, this whistleblower allegation.

S1: I think there might 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, you know, why should we click in to these office struggles at the Department of Homeland Security that seem to show us what we might feel like we already know?

S2: Well, I mean, as somebody who reports on intelligence, you know, I’m highly aware of the history that this country has, the very ugly history of abusing intelligence authorities and national security powers to political ends. You know, the the laws that we have in place now that control with a lot of these agencies do came out of the era of, you know, Watergate and the FBI spying on protesters in the Vietnam War and wiretapping Martin Luther King. I mean, real abuses of civil liberty and government power to constrain people’s First Amendment rights and to and in many cases to to trample them. And so when we see allegations that a presidential administration is trying to manipulate information or use. Is 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 right. 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.

S1: Yeah, it stood out to me that just a few days after your reporting into what happened here, the Department of Homeland Security, there was reporting that the administration has been interfering with CDC 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?

S2: In a way I do, because I think that the president, who lies repeatedly, I think that he views the entire government as an apparatus that’s 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. And 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. I mean, you’re talking about marching orders that’s 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. And it’s not what we think of when we talk about the president, you know, trying to preserve the public trust. I mean, this is this this is turning government into it, almost essentially an arm of his campaign. Is there a next step here for, say, Congress, what Congress is going to investigate Murphy’s allegations for sure? That takes time. It’s my take away from the last year and we know how the administration just loves to respond to subpoenas when they’re issued to them. We are two months out now from the election. At this point, I don’t really know what Congress can practically do to try and reverse what has been a pattern and practice of behavior that arguably goes back to the beginning of the administration, just in the terms of always trying to color and shade the truth. On this particular issue, though, what I think you’re going to probably see is Congress trying to ring the bell just as loudly as it can and trying to alert the public that you’re not getting the full story or the clearest story that you should be when it comes to election interference. But they’re up against, you know, obviously a clock and they’re also up against the guy with the biggest megaphone, Donald Trump, who is out there every day talking about how mail in balloting is rife with fraud. And it said the election is going to be rigged. I mean, he is essentially the biggest source of disinformation and misleading information about the election of anyone. And I have talked to people in the intelligence community who are practically in tears over the fact that Vladimir Putin can basically just sit back and pat himself on the back. Donald Trump is doing his work for him when it comes to trying to undermine the public’s confidence in the security and legitimacy of our electoral process. Yikes. Yeah, it’s not great.

S1: Shane Harris, thank you so much for talking to me. You’re welcome. It’s always great to talk to you. Thank you. Shane Harris covers national security over The Washington Post.

S4: And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt and Elena Schwarz. We get help everyday from Slate executive editor Alison Benedikte and Slate executive producer Alicia Montgomery. And Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.