U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied allegations Wednesday that he molded intelligence reports to suit the administration, telling a Senate committee that a recent whistleblower’s report is “patently false.”
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, testifying in a wide-ranging Senate confirmation hearing, also rejected a separate allegation that he held back an intelligence report on Russian disinformation that targeted former vice-president and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Both issues emerged early in the hearing as the Senate considers a nominee who has been accused of politicizing the third largest department in the federal government and faced criticism over its handling of civil unrest, COVID-19 and immigration.
“Rhetoric and political ideology cannot drive intelligence reports and it should not predetermine the actions of any federal department,” Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate’s homeland security committee, said at the start of the hearing.
Wolf seems to have solid Republican support on the committee, but it is unclear if the full Senate will vote on his confirmation before the Nov. 3 election.
The whistleblower complaint released this month is the subject of a DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation. Wolf pushed back hard on the claims, which included allegations that he sought to downplay the threat posed by Russia and white supremacists, made by Brian Murphy, who was a senior official with the intelligence division of the agency until the acting secretary reassigned him in early August.
“It is patently false. It is a fabrication, completely,” Wolf told the committee.
Wolf said Murphy was reassigned because of “credible allegations” that he had directed the collection of information about U.S. journalists who were covering the deployment by DHS of federal agents to Portland, Ore., during protests over the summer.
In his whistleblower complaint, Murphy said that, as far as he was aware, the DHS intelligence division “never knowingly” collected information about journalists though it did track media reports that appeared to include leaked material.
Murphy plans to dispute Wolf’s assertion after his legal team gets DHS clearance to review classified information, said attorney Mark Zaid.
“We outright challenge Mr. Wolf’s testimony and we look forward to the opportunity to provide classified testimony to congressional and OIG oversight authorities to describe details to the contrary,” Zaid said in an email.
White supremacists ‘most lethal’ domestic threat
Wolf was also asked about a report by ABC News that he withheld an intelligence bulletin that warned law enforcement agencies about a Russian disinformation effort to promote false allegations about Biden’s mental health.
Wolf said he put a hold on the two-page document in July so that it could be “improved” with additional context. It was then released in September.
Peters questioned why it took that long, only coming out after news coverage that it had been held back.
Reaction from a Democratic congresswoman and former CIA analyst:
Under Wolf’s leadership, we have seen the deployment of unmarked security forces without consent of local authorities, attempted censorship of intelligence on Russia and other election threats, and refusal to participate in oversight, as recently as last week.
Wolf also pushed back on a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found that neither he nor his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, are legally able to hold their positions because of a violation of the rules of succession, a finding that could jeopardize some agency actions on immigration and other matters.
Wolf noted that DHS lawyers dispute the GAO finding, which he pointed out is non-binding in any case.
“We will continue to operate as we have,” he said.
Homeland Security has not had a permanent leader since Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure in early 2019.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr have spoken at length about violence that has sometimes erupted in a summer of protests in Portland and elsewhere over police shootings and racial justice, frequently blaming left-wing mobs and Antifa.
But Peters got Wolf to remark that the department’s intelligence assessment considers white supremacists, who are overwhelmingly on the right end of the political spectrum, the more serious threat.
“I think when you talk about domestic terrorism … certainly white supremacist extremists from a lethality standpoint over the last two years, particularly when you look at 2018 and 2019, are certainly the most lethal and persistent threat when we talk about domestic violent extremists.”
Wolf didn’t attend a Democrat-led House committee hearing last week in which his presence was requested, but he echoed language from FBI Director Christopher Wray at that hearing that Antifa is not a formal organization but a looser ideological movement that has some adherents who espouse the use of violent tactics.
Wray at last week’s hearing also talked about Russia’s ongoing efforts to try to roil the presidential election, earning an angry rebuke from Trump the following day.
“I did not like his answers yesterday,” Trump told reporters.
Allegations of improper medical procedures being investigated
Wolf also said that the department’s internal watchdog is investigating a Georgia immigration detention centre tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.
Wolf said the DHS inspector general would interview people at the facility on Wednesday and Thursday, but cautioned that “some of the facts on the ground” did not back up the allegations.
“At this point, they are allegations, and we need to make sure that they fully investigate them so that all sides have a chance to be heard,” Wolf said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The claims were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, in a complaint filed to the inspector general last week.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied the allegations, which have shocked people across Latin America, from where many U.S. immigrants hail, and caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers.