Does the DHS Whistleblower Report Reveal an Election Interference Scandal? – Lawfare

Last week, the former head of intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, Brian Murphy filed a whistleblower complaint alleging a wide range of misconduct by department officials, including misleading Congress and politicizing threat intelligence. Among the many serious claims, Murphys complaint includes a consequential revelation about the Trump administrations attempts to distort and politicize foreign election threats.

Headline coverage of the complaint has focused on Murphys claim that senior administration officials pressured him and others to downplay or ignore Russian attempts to influence the U.S. electionanother episode in the Trump administrations long pattern of denying the scope and gravity of threats from Russia. Those allegations describe misconduct that must be taken seriously. But Murphy doesnt just allege he was pressured to downplay threats from Russiahe also says he was directed to prioritize intelligence reporting and analysis about China and Iran. If confirmed, this would be a serious abuse of power.

The complaint documents a series of protected, classified disclosures that Murphy says he made between March 2018 and August 2020, about abuse of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence and undermine United States interests. Murphy offers a startling detail: In mid-May 2020, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf directed him 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. Mr. Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Adviser Robert OBrien.

In other words, Murphy claims that in May 2020, the national security adviser personally gave explicit instructions to the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize intelligence about Chinese interference over reporting on Russian meddling in the election.

This seemingly small detail is a big deal. Since July, the Trump administration has been pushing a deeply misleading narrative that China is engaged in election interference activity, that China poses a greater election interference threat than Russia, and that China is motivated by a desire to assist Joe Bidens campaign. In fact, this narrative is emerging as a central theme of the presidents reelection campaign. Its disturbing enough for a president and his allies to distort intelligence assessments for political gain, but Murphys account suggests something more nefariousthat intelligence authorities and positions of public trust might have been used to engineer the narrative from the outset.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should offer a note of caution. Murphy is not a disinterested party. He was recently removed from his position following reports that his division of Homeland Security had distributed intelligence reporting related to the public activity of journalistsincluding Lawfares Benjamin Wittesand there are reasons to be skeptical of Murphys self-interested account of events. That said, a number of his allegations are facially credible and supported by the public record. His account regarding OBrien is one such claimand, importantly, Murphy also references separate meetings of the National Security Council Deputies Committee where relevant discussions occurred and names other parties as witnesses to the events.

The Trump administrations efforts to push a false narrative about China and Biden are well documented at this point. A Sept. 1 Politico article noted that a new talking point has taken hold among Donald Trump and his allies: that U.S. intelligence shows that China would prefer a Joe Biden presidency and is trying to help him win. This claim is not supported by the intelligence assessments in question, and national security officials familiar with the underlying intelligence have confirmed in multiple press articles that the representation is inaccurate. Both CNN and Yahoo have recently reported on the phenomenon as well. Just last week, Trump tweeted an article from Breitbart claiming China was favoring Biden in the presidential election and that Beijing was fueling Black Lives Matter protests, among other dubious assertions. Prominent right-wing media voices, including Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have likewise amplified the claims on social media while pushing the hashtag #BeijingBiden.

Prior to Murphys whistleblower complaint, it appeared that this false narrative originated in a misleading intelligence assessment released on Aug. 7 by William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). That statement said that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is primarily concerned about potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran. Evanina went on to clearly state that actors linked to the Russian government had made attempts to undermine Bidens electoral prospects, writing Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and pointing to specific examples of Russian maneuvering.

On China, however, the assessment is vague and equivocal: We assess that China prefers that President Trump ... does not win reelection, Evanina wrote. But the statement neither asserts nor offers evidence that Beijing is actually working to prop up Biden or taking any affirmative steps to interfere in the election at all. Instead, it describes general opposition from the Chinese government to specific U.S. policies and ongoing influence efforts to manipulate the political landscape toward its interests. In other words, a statement about election security included a section describing a traditional counterintelligence threata campaign of propaganda and lobbying, some of which is overt and legal, and some of which is not.

The counterintelligence threat from China is very troubling, but it isnt election interference. While the Chinese counterintelligence threat presents a significant long-term threat to U.S. interests, Russian electoral interference threatens the immediate legitimacy of our core democratic process. As former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Rick Ledgett recently put it, Russia is a forest fire and China is global warming. To borrow Ledgetts analogy, the NCSC statement is like beginning a report on a string of arsons with a lengthy discussion of greenhouse gases.

So why did Evanina include China in his assessment? A number of U.S. officials told the Washington Post at the time that the inclusion was intended to create a false equivalence between Russian activity and China: Between China and Russia, only one of those two is trying to actively influence the outcome of the 2020 election, full stop, said a senior U.S. official.

Congressional Democrats had already called out Evanina for grouping Russia, China and Iran together in an earlier, less-detailed statement on election interference from July, saying, The [July] statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together. While they praised the Aug. 7 release for including more detail, they wrote, Unfortunately, [the August] statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections. Notably, Pelosi et al. didnt accuse Evanina of skewing intelligence for political purposes. Even officials critical of the substantively misleading statement were quick to extend Evanina the benefit of the doubt. The Post quotes former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos saying it was crafted to satisfy both campaigns, a practice known at the agency as dancing through the raindrops, and includes a similar suggestion from an anonymous former official: The former senior official suggested Evanina worded the statement so as to not incur the wrath of the White House while sticking to analytical language. Evaninas quandary, the official said, is how do you get the truth out there in a way that doesnt get you fired.

Its a charitable assumption, to be sure, but plausible enough. By this line of thinking, Evanina is an intelligence official caught in an impossible position who, while keeping the statement technically accurate, inserts a little political spin to avoid partisan gridlock.

But politicizing intelligence assessments is always dangerous, even if done with good intentions. And now Murphys whistleblower complaint suggests that there might be something far more nefarious at work.

Murphy alleges that months before Evaninas misleading statement, OBrien had started to direct Homeland Security officials to engage in precisely this type of politicization. If Murphy is to be believed, OBrien was directing the department to go out in search of intelligence in order to support the political narrative that China, not Russia, is the bigger threat. It isnt a leap to wonder now whether Evaninas statement was a capitulation to similar pressure from OBrien or others.

To appreciate the significance of the statementand the need to get clarity on the circumstances surrounding its drafting and the underlying intelligence collection and analysisit is important to recognize how aggressively the president, administration officials and campaign surrogates have been pushing this talking point since mid-August.

On Aug. 17, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told Fox News in a statement that China poses a greater national security threat to the U.S. than any other nationeconomically, militarily and technologically. That includes threats of election influence and interference. Ratcliffe shared the Fox News article on Twitter. On Aug. 21, in an interview with Fox News, the president said, China owns Joe Biden . They own Joe Biden, they own him, and they want me to lose so bad.

The narrative emerged as a major talking point at the Republican National Convention. In his Aug. 25 remarks at the convention, Donald Trump Jr. said, Beijing Biden is so weak on China that the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favors Biden. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley echoed the theme in her own remarks that evening, saying, Joe Biden is good for Iran and ISIS, great for Communist China[.] That same day, Sen. Tom Cotton dedicated an entire Fox News op-ed to elaborate on the theory, writing

[T]he Chinese havent done much to hide their preference in trade negotiations with the Trump administration, they suddenly took a much harder line when Biden announced his candidacy last year, figuring that they might soon have a friend in the White House.

When, for a time, it looked like Biden wouldnt get the Democratic nomination, the Chinese were suddenly more willing to strike a deal, which they closed in January when Biden was near his weakest point in the polls . Episodes like these are why our intelligence community has concluded that China prefers Joe Bidens candidacy to the reelection of President Trump.

The next day, Trump tweeted, Just In: Chinese State Media and Leaders of CHINA want Biden to win the U.S. Election[,] and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen gave prepared remarks at the Center for Strategic & International Studies that hewed more closely to the actual assessment, while amplifying Evaninas framing.

The administrations efforts have only accelerated since then. In an Aug. 30 interview, Maria Bartiromo asked Ratcliffe about China and what theyre trying to do in this election? He responded, I cant get into a whole lot of details, other than to say that China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing. He added, but when we talk about influence and malign foreign influence, what Chinas doing that no one else is doing is, theyre engaging at the local, state and federal level[.] Ratcliffe then parroted the same talking point about Chinas supposed preference for Biden, saying that Beijing is playing in the election or expressing preferences for Vice President Biden over President Trump because ... President Trump has been tough on China.

A few days later, on Sept. 2, Attorney General William Barr went on CNN and also used the NCSC statement as the basis for an untrue assertion. When asked by Wolf Blitzer what country named in the NCSC statement was most aggressive in U.S. election interference, Barr confidently proclaimed, I believe its China. He claimed his conclusion was based on having seen the intelligence but refused to elaborate further. Barr doesnt mention that in this comment to Blitzer he is offering an assessment that is contrary to the NCSC statement being discussed, and he uses the same conflation of election security and counterintelligence threats in defending his position. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said in a later interview on CNN that Barr is just flat-out lying to the American people, and its tragic but its as simple as that and emphasized that Evaninas statement mentioned that Russia was actively interfering, whereas China merely had a preference.

Notably, OBrien himself is actively pushing the falsehood as well. In a Sept. 4 White House press conference, OBrien repeatedly dodged and misled when pressed on the respective nature and scope of the Russia and China election threats. In response to a question about Trumps falsehoods on mail-in ballots mirroring Russian propaganda, OBrien replied:

When it comes to elections and what the intelligence community has made very clear is that, first, you have China, which has the most massive program to influence the United States politically; you have Iran, and you have Russia. These are all three adversary countries that are seeking to disrupt our elections. Some of them prefer Biden. Some people say some of them prefer the President.

OBrien said he agreed 100 percent with Barrs statement that China is being more aggressive than Russia in meddling in the election. And he doubled-down when asked about foreign actors spreading campaign disinformation, saying, [W]e know that the Chinese have taken the most active role, but the Russians and the Iranians and other countries are involved as well.

Pressed for details on what specifically youre seeing from China that makes you believe that they have a bigger or harder-working electoral interference operation than Russia or other countries[,] OBrien launched into a long, nonresponsive soliloquy about American foreign policy toward China over the past four decades. When a journalist interrupted to press himBut specifically on the election,OBrien commented, when it comes to the election, everything that theyre doing across the board, whether its political influence through the Confucius Institutes; whether its them trying to influence business leaders [or] the massive activities of the Chinese in the cyber realm, its really an extraordinary thing that were facing.

Four days later, Murphy filed his whistleblower complaint. His allegation about OBrien raises urgent questions, particularly in light of the existing public record. We dont know the answers, but Congress and the press should be asking. Here are a few to start:

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Does the DHS Whistleblower Report Reveal an Election Interference Scandal? - Lawfare

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