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How DHS was weaponized by the Trump administration

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Portland Black Lives Matter protest June 13, 2020 by Pete Forsyth, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday Senator Ron Wyden released unredacted versions of two reports on DHS activity in Portland during 2020. According to Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting, the new information shows even more evidence of the Trump administration’s politicization of DHS.

The newly public portions show in more granular detail how Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli led efforts to politicize intelligence operations in Portland, in many instances pushing constitutional boundaries.

The now un-redacted portions of the report describe the two agency heads requesting so-called operational background reports, known as OBRs or “baseball cards,” on every person who attended protests, a request that would have entailed intelligence dossiers on potentially thousands of Portlanders. That was apparently motivated by a belief that a “U.S person” was funding the protests in the city.

The whole writeup is worth reading. I haven’t read the underlying documents, but it seems like there’s a lot of wild, and disturbing, information in them. For example:

Now, the unredacted report shows how that narrative trickled down through the agency and impacted operations on the ground, politicizing intelligence in ways that many found alarming.

“[Acting Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Brian Murphy’s] intended purpose was to use the OBRs to confirm his suspicions that a link existed amongst the arrestees and identify a single individual or group that was “masterminding” the attacks,” the report reads.

Murphy, whose name had been redacted until now, also insisted analysts refer to protesters as “Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired,” a demand analysts had long insisted was not grounded in any of their intelligence collection.

“For weeks, the analysts had been telling Mr. Murphy that because ANTIFA was not in the collection, it could not be put into the analysis,” the newly unredacted portions read, making clear that the previously unnamed Murphy forced his political views into intelligence over the objection of analysts.

“Notwithstanding this feedback from the I&A analysts, on July 25, 2020, Mr. Murphy sent an email to his senior leadership instructing them that henceforth, the violent opportunists in Portland were to be reported as VAAI,” the report reads, using the acronym for “violent antifa anarchists inspired.”

An associate general counsel thought the email was so egregious that it constituted a questionable intelligence activity and warranted being briefed to the Director of National Intelligence, according to the report.

One section of the report that’s been getting a lot of play on social media details the “amateur hour” effort to train new hires to monitor social media:

Almost all training, DHS Headquarters on-boarding training, even training to become a Certified Release Authority, was on hold due to COVID.104 ITA training went on a five-week hiatus as it feverishly worked to transition its live training courses to a virtual environment.105 In late May, OSCO was offered additional resources through a joint duty assignment (JDA) with CISA employees, but OSCO apparently declined. As noted by the OSCO branch chief, it was hard enough trying to train their own collectors remotely, and bringing on JDAs at that time would have only added to their struggles. Adding further aggravation to an already incredibly strained system, OSCO was required to surge to respond to crisis events that arose as a result of the George Floyd killing. New hires, who had barely received any form of training, were immediately activated to assist in any capacity possible. A scrambled purchase for laptops was made through acquisitions from Best Buy, and on a Saturday evening, the new hires were asked to meet in the DHS Nebraska Avenue Complex (NAC) parking lot so they could pick up a “collection” laptop. The OSCO branch chief, via Microsoft Teams Chat, then walked them through downloading the necessary software and visiting social media sites to collect information. Two witnesses complained that they and others who were given equipment were not provided the appropriate operational security measures (a virtual private network (VPN) or a managed attribution tool) on these “collection” laptops to protect their privacy. Without these tools, they believed that they were vulnerable to any nefarious actors looking to expose their private information, doxx DHS personnel, or invade the employee’s home network.

The junior collectors were instructed to scan social media platforms and to take screen shots of threats to send to senior collectors for review and possible OSIR drafting. After a week or so of doing this, the junior collectors began writing their own OSIRs and conducting peer review of other drafted OSIRs, in spite of not being sure of all the criteria and requirements at that point. “They received guidance on how to write OSIRs by calling different collectors and asking them how to do the various parts.” In fact, “the new collectors started a group chat for themselves where they could share how things were going.” Despite CETC leadership warning I&A leadership that the collectors were inexperienced and not properly trained, CETC leadership was told to “surge anyways,” and to “make it work.”

This seems like a good time to remember that DHS was essentially mapped out on the back of napkin by Bush administration officials, who saw it as a way to gain political advantage in the upcoming 2002 midterms.

Not since Congress and the Truman administration upended the nation’s military apparatus to fight the cold war in 1947 has the government been reshaped so dramatically around a single purpose. Once the department goes into existence 60 days from Mr. Bush’s signature, it will slowly begin to absorb 22 of Washington’s signature functions, including immigration, border protection, emergency management, intelligence analysis and the protection of the president himself.

…. Many workers in the new department will also find themselves without their customary Civil Service job protections, an issue that held up approval of the department for months. The entire process, in fact, was far more bitter than anyone expected in June when Mr. Bush adopted a Democratic idea for the department and added changes that would give him more management flexibility than in most other departments.

The department and Mr. Bush’s plan to curtail Civil Service protections became an issue in the midterm elections, and the decision to fight the plan was widely acknowledged as helping cost two Democratic senators their jobs and their party its control over the Senate.

One of those senators was Max Cleland, a triple-amputee veteran, who, you may remember, Republicans successfully slimed as pro-terrorist.

It’s worth keeping in mind that what the Trump administration did with DHS is the bleeding edge of what the next MAGA administration will do to the entire executive branch.

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