A whistleblower named Brian Murphy recently got attention for his claim that DHS officials ordered him to stop investigating Russian interference in the 2020 election. Until he was demoted a few months ago, Mr. Murphy ran the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (“DHS I&A”).
In the same complaint, Mr. Murphy also alleges that Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli ordered him to alter intelligence reports to downplay violence and corruption in Central America. These reports are used to evaluate asylum claims and by downplaying the violence, it would be more difficult for asylum seekers to win their cases. From page 9 of the complaint–
In December 2019, Mr. Murphy attended a meeting with Messrs. Cuccinelli and Glawe to discuss intelligence reports regarding conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The intelligence reports were designed to help asylum officers render better determinations regarding their legal standards. Mr. Murphy’s team at DHS I&A completed the intelligence reports and he presented them to Mr. Cuccinelli in the meeting. Mr. Murphy defended the work in the reports, but Mr. Cuccinelli stated he wanted changes to the information outlining high levels of corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions in the three respective countries. Mr. Cuccinelli expressed frustration with the intelligence reports, and he accused unknown “deep state intelligence analysts” of compiling the intelligence information to undermine President Donald J. Trump’s (“President Trump”) policy objectives with respect to asylum. Notwithstanding Mr. Murphy’s response that the intelligence reports’ assessments were consistent with past assessments made for several years, Mr. Cuccinelli ordered Messrs. Murphy and Glawe to identify the names of the “deep state” individuals who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately.
Mr. Murphy refused to comply with this order, which he deemed illegal. What to make of this?
The first question is whether Mr. Murphy’s claims can be trusted. Here, there may be some reasons for doubt: Mr. Murphy has himself been accused of altering intelligence reports to better align with the Administration’s agenda, and he has also been accused of compiling intelligence reports on journalists at the Portland, Oregon protests (allegations he denies). After this information became public, Mr. Murphy was demoted, and so there is some speculation that perhaps his whistleblower complaint was made in retaliation for the demotion. On the other hand, Mr. Murphy apparently raised many of the issues listed in the complaint well before his demotion. Also, given that the allegations raised in the complaint are largely knowable (since others beside Mr. Murphy witnessed the events in the complaint and can confirm or deny their veracity), it seems unlikely that Mr. Murphy would simply make this stuff up. But of course, I do not know for sure.
Mr. Murphy’s credibility aside, this would not be the first instance of the Trump Administration altering country condition reports to better serve its agenda. In 2018, the State Department issued reports for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that left out significant derogatory information about those countries. The bowdlerization of those reports was no secret–all you have to do is compare the previous year’s reports to the newer reports to see what has been removed. And so there is clear precedent for what Mr. Murphy is alleging.
All things considered, my sense is that Mr. Murphy’s allegations are probably accurate. If so, what then do we make of Mr. Cuccinelli, the Acting Director of USCIS?
Here, there are two points I want to discuss. First is Mr. Cuccinelli’s desire to alter the reports in order to downplay the “corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions” in the three countries. Since asylum adjudicators rely on these reports to reach their decisions, making the countries seem less bad will potentially make it harder to win asylum. I say “potentially” because there are plenty of other sources of information that give an accurate picture of country conditions in the Northern Triangle. And so if the asylum applicant submits evidence about country conditions or if the adjudicator has such evidence, white-washing the DHS reports may not make much difference in the decision.
But there is a more concerning element to Mr. Cuccinelli’s request vis-a-vis these countries: Either he really believes that the DHS intelligence analysts are lying, or he (Mr. Cuccinelli) wants the U.S. government to lie in order to better achieve the Administration’s goal of denying more asylum cases. Neither possibility is comforting.
If we rely on Mr. Murphy’s account, it seems that Mr. Cuccinelli actually thinks that “deep state intelligence analysts” are somehow undermining Mr. Trump’s asylum agenda. Given that there are many sources for information about the Northern Triangle, including newspapers, human rights reports, and previous years’ intelligence assessments, and all seem to confirm the dire situation in Central America, it is hard to believe that a rational person would find anything nefarious about the picture painted by the DHS I&A reports. Does Mr. Cuccinelli believe that all the various sources are part of the “deep state”? It’s strange, since Mr. Cuccinelli is a lawyer and should know how to evaluate evidence. If Mr. Cuccinelli really believes that a group of deep state agents is sabotaging the country reports, it seems to me that he is living in an alternate reality, and that his confirmation bias is so overpowering that he can’t accept the real world for what it is. I suppose this is a possibility, as he also denies the existence of man-made climate change, which requires a certain level of detachment from reality.
The other possible explanation is that Mr. Cuccinelli knows that the situation in the Northern Triangle is bad, but that he is simply lying in order to make it more difficult for applicants from those countries to obtain asylum. In other words, that the “means” of lying and returning migrants to face persecution is justified by the “ends” of keeping asylum seekers out of our country.
Unfortunately, the situation described in Mr. Murphy’s whistleblower complaint is emblematic of the Trump Administration, which has repeatedly used falsehoods to justify its policies. Whether it engages in those falsehoods knowing them to be false, or believing them to be true, probably doesn’t much matter. Either way, they are doing great harm to our democracy and to many of our nation’s most vulnerable people.