The head of the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence unit told Congress on Friday that there was an attempt to push staffers in the division to characterize certain people as “Antifa,” and he said that is now being reviewed by an inspector general.
Joseph Maher said he became aware of an email by his predecessor, Brian Murphy, that carried that directive.
“The email instructed intelligence professionals to characterize activities of certain individuals in a certain way,” he said.
He also said federal police took phones from people they arrested during Portland’s riots, confirming reports. But he said intelligence analysts did not “exploit” those phones because they didn’t have a warrant.
The department’s intelligence unit did create reports on some journalists, too — which it now admits was wrong.
“They’ve been rescinded and they shouldn’t have been created,” Mr. Maher told the House intelligence committee in an unusual open hearing.
He was testifying in response to a subpoena from committee Chair Adam Schiff, who said he issued it because he felt Homeland Security was slow-walking a security clearance for a lawyer for Mr. Murphy, who after being ousted as intelligence chief filed a whistleblower complaint alleging political pressure and decision-making was rife at the department.
That complaint is deeply controversial.
Democrats, who just a few months ago had suggested Mr. Murphy face criminal investigation, now cite his whistleblower complaint — which Mr. Schiff released publicly last month — as evidence President Trump has poisoned the department.
Yet Republicans on the committee said Mr. Murphy has already had to correct his complaint, and they said emails Mr. Murphy wrote contradict some of his whistleblower assertions.
Mr. Maher said in the nearly two months he’s been acting head of the intelligence office he hasn’t faced pressure from political appointees to shape his work product, and he said he would refuse those directives.
He did confirm reports that Mr. Murphy has been contacting former underlings from the intelligence unit t get them to back him up. Mr. Maher said he has spoken with some of those employees, who he said have been made uncomfortable by the situation.
Democrats called the open hearing, which is somewhat rare for the intelligence committee, to berate Mr. Maher over Homeland Security’s pace of approving Mr. Murphy’s lawyer for top secret security clearance. They said this should be a routing matter done in days, yet it’s stretched nearly a month.
The lawyer’s lack of clearance is delaying their attempt to hold a session with Mr. Murphy to hear his complaints.
But Mr. Maher said the lawyer’s application is actually being “expedited,” and granting top secret clearance is an involved process that usually can take months.
He also pointed out he isn’t involved in that process, which Republicans said made him an odd witness for Democrats to subpoena and force into a public hearing.
The session did, though, give Democrats a chance to hash out the current intelligence assessment of various threats.
Mr. Maher agreed with them that Russia is actively truing to interfere in the 2020 election, and is intent on denigrating Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
And he agreed with them that white supremacists pose a significant threat on the home front.