An internal review of the Department of Homeland Security intelligence branch revealed an unprepared and ill-trained workforce was thrown into assisting with intelligence collection amid the civil unrest in Portland, Oregon, in summer 2020, contributing to the gathering and dissemination of intelligence on US journalists there.
Insufficient supervision, improper collection tradecraft and the deployment of “untrained, inexperienced” collectors to Portland was in part to blame for the intelligence office revealing the names of US journalists in several open-source intelligence reports in July 2020, according to the review.
“These intelligence reports were unusual in that they reported on the activities of U.S. journalists engaged in ordinary journalism,” the review says.
Other issues also plagued the intelligence office before and amid its deployment to Portland, including a “poorly thought out” reorganization effort, a focus on “duty to warn” that created a false sense of urgency and a lack of training.
The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis reports became public in news reports last summer, but this is the first time a redacted version of the department’s internal review has been shared with Congress and has been available to the public.
The review, which is dated January 6, was shared with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon this week as part of a deal for the Senate Finance Committee to begin consideration of Chris Magnus to serve as Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
“Independent investigators confirmed that DHS intelligence officials lacked basic knowledge of their authority, what constituted real threats, and when it was appropriate to investigate Americans who were suspected of no crime at all. It documents how untrained analysts investigated journalists,” Wyden said in a statement.
The review also revealed morale issues within the department’s intelligence office.
“In particular, media quotations from an unnamed source characterizing I&A as the ‘Junior Varsity’ of the Intelligence Community generated a significant morale issue within the I&A workforce,” the review says, pointing to the media attention that the incident gained at the time.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, several US cities faced civil unrest, including Portland, which became a focal point of the Trump-era department’s law enforcement resources after ongoing and sometimes violent and destructive demonstrations targeted the federal courthouse.
In response to the unrest in Portland, DHS deployed hundreds of law enforcement officers to help protect federal employees and property in the city.
After a media report uncovered that DHS had gathered intelligence on two journalists, then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf directed the intel office to cease identifying US members of the media in its intelligence products and ordered an “immediate review.”
The internal review, released by Wyden’s office Friday, was conducted to examine facts and circumstances regarding the collection and publication of three Open Source Intelligence Reports that reported on the activities of US journalists.
Half of the team quit
The issues that arose in Portland stemmed in part from changes made to the intelligence office prior to civil unrest in the summer of 2020.
At some point, DHS intelligence operations shifted focus from strategic collection, analysis and intelligence to an operational function supporting law enforcement activities. “This abrupt mission focus change” across the intelligence office “did not thoroughly consider” existing duties or the capabilities and frailties of the institution, according to the review.
Changes at the “Current and Emerging Threats Center,” which oversaw the open source intelligence collection, were a microcosm of the larger shift, according to the report.
The 76-page review found that the transformation of the center to focus entirely on current and emerging threats on a 24/7 basis “upended the previously small informal organization, removed institutional guardrails, and failed to provide the necessary resources for sustainable growth or mission success.”
Open Source Collection Operations also shifted to meet the needs of the center. In fall 2018, it moved to 24/7 operations, which began a “trend of personnel turnover that continues to plague” the division, resulting in a massive influx of new hires in a very short period.
About half of the federal employees on this team left to avoid shift work or because they disagreed with the new mission direction of the center.
“The exodus of experienced personnel with institutional knowledge and unique skills created follow-on issues including a lack of on-the-job trainers required for the influx of new employees,” it reads.
With the changes, there was a “marked decrease” in quality control of the open source reporting, the review found.
Covid-19 also presented a “particular challenge” for this division, which began ramping up operations and increasing its workforce at the same time the pandemic engulfed the nation. New hires were subject to a virtual training plan, including online trainings, most of which had only a tangential relationship to open source collection and were “not especially helpful.”
At least one new hire was neglected for almost a month. Constrained by Covid, the training program came almost to a halt. Junior collectors often found themselves having to rely on one another as resources, the report says.
The open source office was required to surge to respond to crisis events that arose as a result of the Floyd killing, “adding further aggravation to an already incredibly constrained system.”
DHS deployed “inexperienced, inadequately trained junior collectors without any sort of pre-deployment training offered to help address their underdeveloped understanding of true threats, First Amendment protections, collection requirements, and national intelligence and DHS departmental mission sets,” according to the report.
Instead, the Portland team received only a quick counterintelligence briefing and a gas mask with rudimentary instruction just a few hours before they deployed, according to the review.
In response to this review and others, new acting intelligence office leadership detailed a series of actions taken to address issues at the division, including bolstering open source training and conducting a series of refresher oversight training sessions, according to a February memo to the workforce from then-acting Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Melissa Smislova.
In September 2020, the division also ended automatic unmasking of US persons information in intelligence reporting, according to the memo.
And leadership committed to revamping the work environment in response to concerns about management that ranged from overly directive to hostile or “toxic.”