WASHINGTON – Homeland Security officers considered extracting data from cellphones seized from protesters in Portland, Ore., which would have been a remarkable violation of privacy and the right to peaceable assembly, House Democrats said Friday.
Lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee called a hearing Friday to examine the allegations of Brian Murphy, former chief of the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, who has accused department leaders of suppressing intelligence warnings of violent white supremacy and Russian election interference.
But Rep. Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the committee, opened the hearing by revealing that it had found that Homeland Security intelligence analysts were sent to Portland and questioned demonstrators. The Federal Protective Service, the Homeland Security agency that protects federal property, requested that the analysts “extract data” from phones seized from the protesters without a search warrant, a request that went unfulfilled, Schiff said.
Joseph Maher, acting chief of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, indicated that he had heard of the gathering effort, although he could not recall who in the agency had told him.
Homeland Security’s inspector general was investigating, he said.
Maher testified for the first time since his predecessor, Murphy, filed a whistleblower complaint claiming department leadership blocked the release of intelligence warnings of violent racist extremists and Russia’s efforts to denigrate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to play down Russian influence, Maher joined a chorus of administration officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, in confirming the threat.
“Is Russia actively trying to denigrate Joe Biden?” Schiff asked. “Yes,” said Maher, who assumed oversight of the intelligence office in August.
The intelligence branch of the Department of Homeland Security has come under fire over its efforts to gather information on protesters in Portland and the journalists covering the unrest. Murphy’s allegations that the agency’s senior leadership tried to distort assessments of threats facing the country has fueled criticism that an agency built to coordinate the federal government’s response to national emergencies has instead bent perceptions of those threats to the political whims of President Donald Trump.
The intelligence committee has investigated the Homeland Security Department since it dispatched tactical teams over the summer to face protesters outside a federal courthouse in downtown Portland.
A central duty of the intelligence office is to gather data from the various federal agencies, as well as publicly available sources, and include it in unclassified intelligence bulletins used to inform state and local law enforcement agencies of emerging national security threats.
Homeland Security did not approve the request to glean data from protesters’ cellphones, but Democrats expressed concern.
“This is a situation where an element of the United States intelligence community, not law enforcement personnel, is being asked to use tools meant to counter terrorism or national security threats, not Americans who are exercising their constitutional rights,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.
Maher took over the intelligence office after acting Secretary Chad Wolf demoted Murphy, who has said the demotion was retaliation for filing complaints with Homeland Security’s inspector general.