WASHINGTON – Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Wednesday during his confirmation hearing that white supremacists have become the “most persistent and lethal” internal “threat” to the U.S.
“White supremacist extremists, from a lethality standpoint over the last two years, particularly when you look at 2018 and 2019, are certainly the most persistent and lethal threat when we talk about domestic violent extremists,” said Wolf, who has been heading the DHS in an acting capacity since November.
The Senate committee hearing came just a few weeks after a whistleblower, Brian Murphy, who served as an undersecretary in the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence office, said Wolf told him to squash information regarding the threat of white supremacy and assessments of Russian interference in the U.S. election to better fit President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Wolf denied this during his confirmation hearing, calling allegations of modifying such intelligence conclusions for political purposes “patently false” and a “fabrication.”
The complaint says Kenneth Cuccinelli, Trump’s acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Wolf’s deputy, had directed Murphy to change the assessment’s description on white supremacy “in a manner that made the threat appear less severe” while also adding information on “violent ‘left-wing’ groups,” according to the complaint.
Murphy declined to do so and told Cuccinelli the changes would amount to “censorship” and “improper administration of an intelligence program.”
Wolf’s assessment during the hearing of the threat from white supremacy is rhetorically different from that of Trump and and Attorney General William Barr, who have sought to portray the nation as being under attack by “left-wing mobs” and antifa agitators. They have notably intensified this rhetoric since the protests against racial injustice sparked nationwide this summer.
Murphy’s complaint says Cuccinelli and Wolf directed him in multiple meetings between May and July to “modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups.”
Antifa – short for “anti-fascists” – refers to loosely affiliated, left-leaning anti-racist groups that have been involved in some violent clashes in recent years. The movement has no unified structure or national leadership but has shown up at some protests.
Wolf did say the most deadly threats to the country overall are pandemics, foreign adversaries, and national disaster, while also stating the government “cannot ignore” groups such as antifa.
The department’s categorization regarding the threat of white supremacy recently was mired in controversy after leaked drafts of the “State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020” exposed that the department had been tweaking the way it wrote about the subject. Those documents echoed some of what Wolf said in his testimony.
Wolf additionally told senators the country faces threats of election interference from Russia, China and Iran. He stated “Russia looks to denigrate former Vice President Biden” while China and Iran prefer Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent, but said there’s no current intelligence proving that any of those countries have yet carried out attacks.
Similarly, in congressional testimony last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that, as in 2016, Russia remains “very active” in efforts to “influence our election,” in this case by denigrating Biden.
“I did not like his answers yesterday,” Trump told reporters in response to Wray. He later tweeted that China “is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia.”
Wolf also rejected a separate allegation that he held back an intelligence report on Russian disinformation that targeted Biden regarding his mental health.
Wolf said he put a hold on the two-page document in July so that it could be “improved” with additional context. When asked why it’s release took so long, he stated that “The important part is the underlying intelligence did not change.”
Murphy was reassigned to another DHS division on Aug. 1 amid reports that Murphy’s office had collected intelligence on journalists and protesters in Portland, Oregon.
In his 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 regarding the whistleblower complaint after his legal team gets DHS clearance to review classified information, attorney Mark Zaid said.
Contributing: Associated Press; Deirdre Shesgreen, Nicholas Wu, Kevin Johnson USA TODAY