National Security

Watchdog finds Trump DHS altered, delayed report on Russia’s election interference

Former acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf intervened to delay release of an intelligence report flagging Russian involvement in the 2020 election, while other DHS officials sought to “blunt” the focus on the country in the report, according to a government watchdog.

A Tuesday report from DHS’s Office of Inspector General concluded that DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) wrongly let politics interfere with the dissemination of the report, which documented a Russian disinformation campaign surrounding President Biden’s mental acuity. 

“I&A employees during the review and clearance process changed the product’s scope by making changes that appear to be based in part on political considerations, potentially impacting I&A’s compliance with Intelligence Community policy,” OIG concluded in a report that found that “DHS did not adequately follow its internal processes.”

The report does not mention Wolf by name, only by his role, noting the unusual circumstances of the secretary of the department interfering with such work.

“Additionally, the Acting Secretary 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,” they wrote.

According to the report, Wolf said in a July 8, 2020, meeting that the intelligence product should be “held” because it “made the President look bad.”

OIG concluded Wolf’s interference and other changes violated requirements that require intelligence products to be objective and independent of political consideration.

The report largely backs reporting from ABC News from September 2020, which noted the assessment was withheld, even after edits to include references to Chinese and Iranian efforts to discredit former President Trump. 

Mark Zaid, who represented Brian Murphy, a former acting secretary for I&A who blew the whistle on the interference, said the report “looks to be significant vindication” for his client.

The initial intelligence report, “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Electoral Dynamics,” was proposed after an I&A employee “noticed an uptick in Russian state media efforts to question candidate Joseph Biden’s mental health. … The analyst believed foreign efforts questioning a candidate’s health were worth exploring because they could impact voters’ willingness to vote for that candidate and began drafting the product.”

Despite reservations by the author, I&A added a “tone box” to include references to China and Iran’s efforts to promote unsubstantiated narratives questioning the mental health of then-President Trump.

The report notes the tone box is the only part of the intelligence product where the other two countries are discussed.

The head of the Cyber Mission Center told OIG investigators that the tone box “was a feature intended to draw a contrast between the actions of Russia and those of Iran and China, but also described the tone box as a ‘blunting feature’ meant to balance the product.” 

“When asked whether intelligence products require balancing, he said the addition of the tone box was not politicization, yet also said it showed I&A’s political savviness, as the state and local customers of their products tended to be political.”

But the report concluded the addition of the tone box served an unclear intelligence purpose. 

Wolf for his part told investigators his concerns were not political, but that he questioned the workmanship behind the product.

“The product I saw in July was written at the Fifth-Grade level. I expect more out of our component leaders. There were sentences that did not make sense. There was no cohesive argument. It lacked citations and context,” Wolf said.

Wolf raised his concerns about the product as early as July 7, going on to protest its dissemination in a meeting the following day and blocking its planned July 9 release. Wolf intervened again when the product was set to be released in mid-August.

The report was eventually approved for dissemination on Sept. 4

Wolf ultimately resigned as acting DHS secretary in January of last year after a court ruled he has not been legally serving in the role.

Tags Brian Murphy Chad Wolf DHS Donald Trump Iran Joe Biden Mark Zaid Russia Russian election interference

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