WASHINGTON — A second staff member on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 pro-Trump attack on the Capitol has been accused of retaliation against a whistleblower, the latest development that threatens to distract from the panel’s inquiry.
On Wednesday, Mark S. Zaid, the lawyer for a former Department of Homeland Security intelligence chief, Brian Murphy, accused the committee’s newest senior aide, Joseph Maher, of being involved in an effort to retaliate against Murphy once he became a whistleblower at the department. He said Maher, who is detailed to the committee from the department, was involved in Trump-era efforts to limit investigations into right-wing domestic extremism.
The committee immediately defended Maher, pointing to nearly two decades of work in domestic security that he brings to the investigation.
“Mr. Maher believes that any allegations implicating him are entirely baseless, that he did not retaliate in any way against anyone, and that he did not take any steps to prevent the office from collecting intelligence on violent extremists of any type,” said Tim Mulvey, the panel’s spokesperson. “The select committee is committed to protecting whistleblowers and treating whistleblower information with the discretion and seriousness it deserves.”
The allegation came after the committee’s staff director, David B. Buckley, was also accused of retaliating against a whistleblower, and some groups have called for his resignation.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said the allegations against Buckley and Maher could hamper the select committee as it looks for answers into the attack on the Capitol that led to several deaths and the injuries of about 140 police officers.
“For this committee to do its important work, they will need to rely on the testimony of insiders, both in Congress and in the intelligence community,” Brian said. “These two hires make it impossible to responsibly encourage these vulnerable sources to come forward. This did not have to happen. This is another unforced error.”
The controversy began when Murphy was reassigned over allegations that his office compiled reports about protesters and journalists during demonstrations in Portland. He then became a whistleblower and accused Trump administration officials of ordering him to modify intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe” and include information on violent “left-wing” groups and antifa.
The New York Times has reported on an effort within the Trump administration to stifle internal concerns about far-right threats and deny funding for analysts to search social media posts for warnings of potential violent extremism.
After Murphy’s reassignment, Maher, who has served as the principal deputy general counsel for the Homeland Security Department, replaced him as the acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and “immediately shut down open-source collection efforts on domestic extremists that were being advocated and conducted by Mr. Murphy,” Zaid said. “To put it bluntly, Mr. Maher is likely (or should be) a direct fact witness as to why DHS failed — under his leadership — to identify, predict or help prevent the threat that grew into the events of Jan. 6.”
Murphy did not accuse Maher in his initial complaint with the department’s inspector general last year but named him in an addendum filed in January. In that document, Murphy said Maher had extended his reassignment and told others he did not want Murphy to return to his intelligence job. Zaid described the actions as “unlawful retaliation.”
Murphy maintains that he was punished for political reasons to protect former President Donald Trump and that Chad F. Wolf, then the acting Homeland Security secretary, told him to stop producing assessments on Russian interference. He said the department’s second-highest official at the time, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, ordered Murphy to modify intelligence assessments to downplay the threat of white supremacy.
The committee spokesperson, however, said Maher was merely drafted to help clean up a chaotic situation after the department opened an investigation into whether Murphy’s office was inappropriately examining the work of reporters covering the government’s response to Portland protests.
“He was asked to step into the leadership position at the Office of Intelligence and Analysis last summer when its director was reassigned from that position,” Mulvey said, “following reporting raising concerns that the office had been improperly assembling intelligence on journalists.”
“The select committee,” he added, “has no reason to believe that Mr. Maher is the focus” of a continuing inspector general investigation into the matter.
Maher was recommended for the committee by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of two conservatives on the panel, as part of an effort to bolster the investigation’s bipartisan credentials. Maher began working for the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, when he was hired under President George W. Bush, and served in a number of legal positions. His hiring by the committee was announced the same day that former Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., joined the panel’s staff.
Olivia Troye, a former Homeland Security and counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who also emerged as a whistleblower, confirmed Murphy’s account. She said Murphy had been providing valuable information on the activities of white supremacist groups before he was removed.
“He came in and shut the entire thing down,” Troye, who left the administration last August but stayed in close contact with staff members, said of Maher. “I consider it a pretty big conflict of interest that he was directly involved in leading the component that should have been more proactive. The integrity of the committee’s work matters so much.”
The committee has now twice selected as senior staff members people who have been accused of retaliating against whistleblowers, including against the CIA whistleblower whose complaints led to the first impeachment of Trump.
At least two outside groups, the Project on Government Oversight and Whistleblower Aid, have called for the removal of Buckley as the select committee’s staff director. Both cited a 2019 inspector general report that found that he had retaliated against Andrew Bakaj, the former lead counsel for the CIA whistleblower, when the two men worked in the agency’s inspector general office.
Democrats on the panel have defended Buckley’s record and denied that he retaliated against a whistleblower.