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Trump appointee delayed report on Russian election interference, federal watchdog says

The internal watchdog also found DHS employees made additions to the report about China and Iran “that appear to be based in part on political considerations."
President Donald Trump lets acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf move to the podium to speak about Covid-19 in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on April 1, 2020.
President Donald Trump lets acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf move to the podium to speak about Covid-19 in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on April 1, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP file

A top Trump political appointee delayed a report on Russian election interference in the 2020 election in a way that created the perception that intelligence was politicized, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security watchdog.

The DHS inspector general report also found that employees of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis made changes to the analysis of foreign election interference “that appear to be based in part on political considerations, potentially impacting I&A’s compliance with Intelligence Community policy.”

The report also found that the appointee, acting Secretary Chad Wolf, who is not named, “participated in the review process multiple times despite lacking any formal role in reviewing the product, resulting in the delay of its dissemination on at least one occasion.”

In a statement to NBC News Wednesday, Wolf said the report “supports my longstanding position on this matter,” and that the IG “did not find any credible evidence that I directed anyone to change the substance of the report because it ‘made President Trump look bad.’” Also, he added, “buried in the report is the fact that the grossly false whistleblower complaint against me was withdrawn.”

At issue was an intelligence analysis stating that “Russian malign influence actors” were spreading unsubstantiated allegations about the health of then-candidate Joe Biden to reduce voters’ confidence in him. The product said Russia was using both overt and covert channels and linked the efforts to similar operations during the 2016 presidential election.

The release of the paper was delayed on Wolf’s orders, the inspector general’s report says. Other officials added a so-called tone box describing efforts by Chinese and Iranian influence actors to promote unsubstantiated narratives questioning the mental health of then-President Donald Trump. 

“The tone box is the only part of the product where Iran and China, as well as President Trump, are discussed,” the inspector general’s report says. 

The report was sparked by a whistleblower complaint, covered at the time by NBC News. The written complaint by Brian Murphy, who was a top DHS intelligence analyst, accused top DHS officials of blocking analysis of Russian election interference, watering down intelligence reports about corruption and violence fueling a refugee flow from Central America, and “modify[ing] assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups.”

The inspector general’s report says investigators were not able to conclude that Wolf or other officials acted out of political motives. Instead, it concludes their actions created the perception of politicization.

“DHS did not follow its standard process and requirements when editing and disseminating an I&A intelligence product regarding Russian interference with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The Acting Secretary disrupted dissemination of the product when he asked for the product to be ‘held’ during the July 8 meeting,” the report says.

“This resulted in a delay in the dissemination of an intelligence product intended to inform stakeholders about foreign influence efforts relating to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”

The inspector general’s report noted that an ombudsman within the DHS intelligence office also questioned whether the intelligence report had been politicized.

“Given the structure, vagueness, and use of a ‘balancing’ tone box, there are some questions about objectivity and freedom from political consideration,” the ombudsman concluded, according to the report.

(Correction: May 4, 2022, 4:38 p.m.) A previous version of this article and a headline misstated how many times an IG report said then-Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf delayed the release of an intelligence report. It was at least once, not twice. (The IG attributed the second delay to Wolf’s chief of staff.)