WASHINGTON – A senior Department of Homeland Security official whose office compiled “intelligence reports” about journalists and protesters in Portland, Ore., has been removed from his job, according to people familiar with the matter.
Brian Murphy, the acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, was reassigned to a new position in the department’s management directorate, an administrative support office, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter.
Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf made the decision on Friday.
Murphy’s removal follows revelations in The Washington Post that the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I & A) at DHS compiled Open Source Intelligence Reports about the work of two journalists who had published leaked department documents. In a separate intelligence report, the office also analyzed the communications of protesters in Portland.
DHS has been under mounting scrutiny from lawmakers and civil liberties groups over its use of federal law enforcement officers to quell protests in Portland and in light of President Trump’s threat to deploy federal personnel to other cities that he asserts are being overrun by violent criminals.
Members of Congress this week cited I & A’s collection of information about journalists and protesters as an alarming encroachment of government authority into activities protected by the First Amendment.
Wolf ordered I & A to stop collecting information on journalists and ordered an investigation after The Post reported the practice on Thursday. Murphy will work as an “adviser” in the management office while that investigation proceeds, a senior department official said.
Wolf has also asked the Homeland Security inspector general to investigate efforts by I & A to collect information about journalists or protesters, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Members of the department’s advisory council, which includes numerous retired high-ranking government officials and former lawmakers, were “furious” to learn that the department was compiling information about journalists in reports normally used to share information about suspected terrorists and violent extremists, according to two people with knowledge of the advisers’ reactions.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Saturday that he was concerned Murphy “may have provided incomplete and potentially misleading information to Committee staff” during a recent briefing about the office’s activities in Portland. Following news reports, including in The Post, that DHS had expanded some of its authorities to monitor protesters, the committee had demanded a broad range of documents and information.
“We will be expanding our oversight even further in the coming days,” Schiff said in a statement.
Murphy had previously told staff on the House and Senate intelligence committees that his office did not collect, analyze or exploit information on the electronic devices or accounts of protesters. On Friday, Democratic senators sent Murphy a letter asking him to confirm that was true.
Murphy spoke with staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees on July 23 and was asked about I & A’s activities in Portland as well as what legal authorities the office was using to justify a new mission: collecting and disseminating information on protesters who threatened to damage or destroy public memorials and statues, including those not on federal property, according to officials familiar with the briefing.
In a follow-up call, DHS lawyers pointed to existing guidelines issued for the department by the attorney general, as well as an Obama-era order that they now claimed allowed DHS to protect and undertake specific intelligence collection and analysis regarding not only iconic monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, but also smaller statues and memorials. On the call, congressional staff expressed skepticism that the lawyers had offered a plausible interpretation of their authorities, according to officials.
At the conclusion of the call, congressional officials told DHS that the call had raised their concerns more than assuaged them, and expressed serious reservations that DHS was “stretching its legal authorities too far,” according to officials familiar with the call.
Murphy is a former FBI agent who worked on the bureau’s efforts to combat radicalization. Current and former colleagues have described him as hard-charging and driven and said he has a history of defying managers and bosses to pursue the course of action he deems appropriate.
In 2007, he was the subject of a magazine profile that extolled his investigative skills and compared his relentlessness to the T-1000 “killer robot” from the movie “Terminator 2.”
Some current officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said Murphy has earned a reputation at DHS for aggressively trying to expand the operations of the intelligence office. Although it is technically an element of the broader intelligence community, I & A publishes reports largely based on unclassified or public sources and is not designed to engage in clandestine investigations or operations like the FBI or the CIA.
Murphy tried to fashion the office into more of an operational player, akin to those larger agencies, and drew scrutiny and criticism internally over his efforts, some officials said. One noted that I & A’s collection of information involving journalists was effectively the last straw and led to his ouster.
Officials have also worried that Murphy was misapplying the authorities of I & A.
For example, the intelligence reports about the journalists’ work appeared to justify collecting the information under a standing requirement for intelligence about cybersecurity threats. It was unclear how tweets by journalists constituted a threat to cybersecurity, which the department usually interprets as hackers trying to disable critical infrastructure or break into classified computers.
Recently, Murphy tried to broaden the definition of violent protesters in Portland, in a way that some officials felt was intended to curry favor with the White House.
According to an internal memo, Murphy announced that the label “violent opportunists,” which his office had used to describe people who were attacking law enforcement personnel and property, would be changed to “violent antifa anarchists.”
Murphy argued that the violent protesters were not merely taking advantage of a moment but had “overwhelmingly” been linked to radical ideologies “driving individuals toward violence.” That conclusion was undercut by an earlier DHS analysis that found there was not enough information about the Portland protesters for the department to know how they might be connected to anti-fascist or anarchist groups and what precisely was motivating them. Many of the protests in Portland have been peaceful and in response to police violence around the country.