Whistleblower says top DHS officials distorted intel to match Trump statements, lied to Congress

Brian Murphy says top DHS officials wanted intelligence to "match up" with Trump's statements about "ANTIFA and 'anarchist' groups."
Image: Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., listens during a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 21, 2019.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., listens during an Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 21.Matt McClain / Pool via Reuters file
By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — A whistleblower is accusing top Trump administration homeland security officials of violating laws and policies by lying to Congress and manipulating intelligence reports to conform with President Donald Trump's political agenda.

A written complaint by Brian Murphy, who was a top Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst, accuses 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 complaint also says DHS gave false information to Congress last year about the numbers of suspected terrorists crossing the southern border. That allegation mirrors the findings of an NBC News report in January 2019, which determined that the Trump administration was misrepresenting the data on suspected terrorists crossing the southern border, claiming thousands when in fact there were almost none.

"The whistleblower reprisal complaint depicts a sustained and disturbing pattern of misconduct by senior Trump administration officials within the White House and DHS," said a statement by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who released the complaint Wednesday afternoon.

Schiff said the complaint "outlines grave and disturbing allegations that senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials improperly sought to politicize, manipulate, and censor intelligence in order to benefit President Trump politically." He added: "This puts our nation and its security at grave risk."

According to the complaint, Murphy served from March 2018 until July 31, 2020, as principal deputy under secretary in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

On Aug. 1, the complaint says, he was demoted to the role of assistant to the deputy under secretary for the DHS Management Division. The complaint says the demotion was in retaliation for the concerns he repeatedly raised.

Murphy, a Marine veteran and former FBI agent, was hired to play a key role in DHS' intelligence collection and analysis operation, the complaint says.

The complaint says he made a series of internal complaints about actions taken by three top officials: Nielsen; Chad Wolf, who is serving as acting DHS secretary; and Ken Cuccinelli, the deputy DHS secretary.

The complaint says that in mid-May 2020, for example, Wolf "instructed Mr. Murphy to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran."

Brian Murphy, former acting undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis. DHS

The Trump administration has sought to emphasize the roles of China and Iran because the countries are assessed by intelligence agencies to prefer that Trump loses the election. But as NBC News has previously reported, officials briefed about the intelligence say only Russia is actively interfering in the election, trying to undermine Democrat Joe Biden and help Trump.

Murphy said Wolf's instructions about Russia "specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien."

"Mr. Murphy informed Mr. Wolf he would not comply with these instructions, as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger," it says.

In July, the complaint says, Murphy was ordered to delay an intelligence report about Russian disinformation efforts. Wolf told Murphy that the intelligence notification should be "held" because it "made the President look bad," the complaint says. Murphy objected, the complaint says, "stating that it was improper to hold a vetted intelligence product for reasons of political embarrassment."

Wolf then excluded Murphy from future meetings on the subject. The description of the complaint matches up with a report on Russian efforts to raise questions about Biden's mental and physical health that was held up in July, as DHS acknowledged last week.

In a statement, DHS spokesperson Alexei Woltornist said, “The Department generally does not comment on the specifics of OIG referrals, but we flatly deny that there is any truth to the merits of Mr. Murphy’s claim. DHS looks forward to the results of any resulting investigation and we expect it will conclude that no retaliatory action was taken against Mr. Murphy.”

“As Acting Secretary Wolf outlined in his State of the Homeland Address [Wednesday], DHS is working to address all threats to the homeland regardless of ideology. The Acting Secretary is focused on thwarting election interference from any foreign powers and attacks from any extremist group.”

The complaint says Murphy repeatedly tried to set his bosses straight about the lack of terrorists crossing the southern border but was rebuffed.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

In December 2019, the complaint says, Murphy attended a meeting with Cuccinelli and David Glawe, then the top DHS intelligence official, to discuss intelligence reports about conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Cuccinelli "stated he wanted changes to the information outlining high levels of corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions in the three respective countries," the complaint says, adding that Cuccinelli "accused unknown 'deep state intelligence analysts' of compiling the intelligence information to undermine (President Trump's) policy objectives with respect to asylum."

Cuccinelli ordered Murphy and Glawe "to identify the names of the 'deep state' individuals who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately," the complaint says. Murphy later told Glawe that the instructions were illegal, an abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program.

About the recent protests, the complaint says, Wolf and Cuccinelli instructed Murphy "to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and 'anarchist' groups."

Murphy refused, the complaint says.

Schiff has subpoenaed him to appear for sworn closed-door testimony on Sept. 21.

“I worked with Brian Murphy at the FBI,” John Anticev, a retired FBI counterterrorism agent, told NBC News. “His credentials, work ethic and reputation at the Joint Terrorism Task Force were impeccable. His commitment to honesty and integrity in government service as an Agent and Marine Officer is unquestionable. He really is a Boy Scout.”

Murphy's complaint initially accused Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, of providing false testimony in December 2018 to Congress about the number of known or suspected terrorists who crossed the southern border.

His lawyers issued a clarification Thursday evening retracting that allegation, saying instead that the incorrect information was given to members of Congress in a PowerPoint presentation, at a meeting led by Nielsen at the White House in January of this year.

In a statement issued before the retraction, James Wareham, an attorney for Nielsen, said, "Mr. Murphy's allegations about Secretary Nielsen's testimony are demonstrably false. She never represented that thousands of known or suspected terrorists (KTSs) crossed the Southern Border."

Julia Ainsley contributed.