Homeland Security official reassigned after intelligence reports on journalists covering protests

DHS says it will ‘immediately discontinue collecting information involving members of the press’ as federal officers remain in Portland despite push to withdraw

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 05 August 2020 13:21
Comments
Protester says federal troops were escalating the violence in Portland

A US intelligence official with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been reassigned following revelations that his office compiled "intelligence reports" on journalists and analysed communications between protesters amid ongoing demonstrations in Portland, Oregon.

Brian Murphy was removed from his post following a report in The Washington Post revealing that the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis sent open source intelligence reports to federal law enforcement agencies containing information from two reporters who had published leaked unclassified government documents while covering Black Lives Matter protests.

Acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf directed the office to "immediately discontinue collecting information involving members of the press" after learning about the reports, according to a 31 July statement from spokesman Alexei Woltornist.

"In no way does the acting secretary condone this practise and he has immediately ordered an inquiry into the matter," he said. "The acting secretary is committed to ensuring that all DHS personnel uphold the principles of professionalism, impartiality and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, particularly as it relates to the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Mr Murphy's reassignment follows threats from Donald Trump to send National Guard troops into Portland after the DHS and Oregon governor Kate Brown had announced an agreement for federal officers' withdrawal. It came following weeks of federal occupation alongside local police and lawsuits from demonstrators alleging violent and unconstitutional use of force.

A statement from Mr Wolf characterised the agreement in less certain terms, saying that his department will "continue to re-evaluate" the city's efforts to protect federal courthouse where officers have been staged before they leave.

He said the agency would "continue to maintain our current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland until we are assured that the Hatfield Federal Courthouse and other federal properties will no longer be attacked and that the seat of justice in Portland will remain secure."

Governor Brown said that officers from US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the wing of DHS "have acted as an occupying force and brought violence."

But the president, who has heightened a "law and order" agenda as he mounts a re-election campaign depecting the US as under attack from other Americans, has instead threatened to activate the National Guard and deploy "very strong offensive force" against protests.

"We have no choice," he claimed. "The left-wing extremists have spread mayhem throughout the streets of different cities."

According to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post, Mr Murphy sought to broaden the definition of Portland's violent protesters in a way that more closely aligns the department with the president's rhetoric.

The office would label people who had previously been described as "violent opportunists" attacking law enforcement and vandalising property as "violent antifa anarchists", according to the report.

Mr Murphy claimed that protesters were "overwhelmingly" linked to ideologies that are "driving individuals towards violence" – despite DHS analysis that determined there was not enough information to make that conclusion.

Press advocacy groups have collected more than 600 law enforcement attacks against journalists during widespread demonstrations against police brutality, underscoring threats to First Amendment protections and government transparency, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker.

The group has discovered at least 87 reporters have been arrested in the US within the last few months, as well as dozens of reporters who have been targets of rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and other weapons.

Those include The Independent's chief US correspondent Andrew Buncombe, who was arrested while reporting on protests in Seattle.

House Intelligence Committee has been "conducting rigorous oversight" of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis over the last two weeks, including Mr Murphy's role in the agency's monitoring of journalists, according to committee chairman Adam Schiff.

"In light of recent public reports, we are concerned that Murphy may have provided incomplete and potentially misleading information to Committee staff during our recent oversight engagement," the California Democratic congressman said in part in a statement.

He said that the committee will be "expanding" its oversight.

"We expect full and timely compliance from the Department and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis," Mr Schiff added.

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