DHS official says he heard of request to extract information from protesters' cellphones

DHS official says he heard of request to extract information from protesters' cellphones
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A top official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told lawmakers on Friday that he had heard about his office receiving a request to extract information from protesters' cellphones after demonstrations in Portland, Ore.

In a public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Joseph Maher, the DHS official carrying out the duties of the under secretary for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), told lawmakers he was aware of a request for protesters' cellphones to be combed for information, but he said it was never carried out. He also said he was unaware of who made the request.

Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesMcCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality House panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps MORE (D-Conn.), who raised concerns about possible violations of civil liberties, pressed Maher about recent reports about protesters having their phones seized, while citing committee interviews with DHS officials as corroborating the claims.

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"Did I&A receive a request to exploit those phones?" Himes asked.

“I have heard that," Maher replied.

Maher quickly added that the DHS inspector general is investigating the activities in Portland and that the internal watchdog has "specifically" asked him not to interview individuals within I&A about matters that are under investigation, which he indicated has limited his conversations on this issue.

Himes said that such a request for cellphone information would be "shocking."

The Connecticut Democrat said, as he understood it, that an office within I&A known as Homeland Identities, Targeting, and Exploitation Center (HITEC) received a request to extract information from the cellphones — which he said appear to be in possession of the agency's Federal Protective Service without a search warrant — to identify connections between the protesters.

Himes said the director of HITEC has testified that the office did not follow through with the request because there was no search warrant.

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When asked by Himes whether he has a "reason to doubt" whether the request had been made, Maher said he doesn't "have a reason to doubt it."

Himes cited a Washington Post report from last month that interviewed protesters alleging that their phones had been unlawfully seized, including a Portland resident who said their phone was confiscated after participating peacefully in the protests.

When Himes asked Maher whether it was common for I&A to examine the personal information of protesters, Maher said his office collects "information overtly and through open source means.”

“The authorities for our intelligence office are different than law enforcement's. They are different than other intelligence agencies which operate outside of the United States in that we do not have authority to covertly collect information like that," Maher said.

"For that reason, it would be pretty legitimate — in fact, maybe even shocking — if an intelligence community element, for precisely for the reason you just outlined, were in fact asked to exploit the phones of American citizens, especially without a warrant," Himes responded.

Maher sought to downplay the request, noting that whoever made it may not have been aware of I&A's authorities.

"I don’t know what those specifics of the conversation were,” he said.

Maher's testimony came after Democrats on the panel subpoenaed him, charging that he and his agency were stonewalling whistleblower Brian Murphy from receiving access to records related to his complaint, which alleges that agency officials repeatedly sought to politicize intelligence reports, including intelligence about Russian interference in the election.

Schiff subpoenaed Maher, a career official, earlier this week, citing the agency’s failure to both turn over key documents and secure temporary security clearances for Murphy’s lawyer in time for his deposition before the committee — two things Schiff argues are necessary for Murphy to testify.

Some of the alleged phone seizures coincided with when Murphy was serving as a top official within I&A, prior to what he claims was a retaliatory demotion in August. That overlap is likely to become a topic of inquiry when Murphy's deposition is rescheduled with the panel.

Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, called Schiff's subpoena a partisan distraction that aims to give Democrats a new talking point ahead of the 2020 election.