That sentiment has renewed criticism that the Trump administration is seeking to draw a false equivalency between Russia’s and China’s efforts to affect the vote for president.
In general, though, the report’s contents steer clear of politics, analysts said. “Given the politicization that has occurred on so many issues within the department, it’s encouraging that the homeland threat assessment takes a much more objective and nonpartisan perspective on cataloguing all these threats,” said Javed Ali, a former DHS senior intelligence analyst now teaching public policy at the University of Michigan.
The former acting head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Brian Murphy, in a whistleblower complaint last month accused Wolf of directing him to play down intelligence reports on Russian interference to avoid making “the president look bad,” and of seeking to modify the draft assessment’s section on white supremacy to make the threat appear less severe.
Wolf in testimony to the Senate last month denied that he had sought to politicize intelligence or downplay the threat. “Certainly white-supremacist extremists . . . particularly when you look at 2018, in 2019, are certainly the most persistent and lethal threat when we talk about domestic violence extremists,” he told the Homeland Security Committee.
Though former DHS officials have said the administration suppressed discussion of domestic terrorism and Russian election interference, career staff have consistently assessed the threats accurately, those officials said.
The report, for instance, states that white supremacists have “demonstrated longstanding intent” to target racial and religious minorities and members of the gay and lesbian community, among others. Since 2018, they have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other domestic terrorist threat, it said.
That’s in line with a counterterrorism strategy released in September 2019 by then-acting secretary Kevin McAleenan, who said that white supremacy was one of the most potent drivers of domestic terrorism.
The report casts Russia’s election influence efforts as broader than a preference for one political candidate over another. “We assess that Moscow’s overarching objective is to weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction in hopes that America becomes less able to challenge Russia’s strategic objectives,” the report said, a finding in line with intelligence community assessments dating back to 2016 that Russia wants to undermine faith in democracies and challenge the global leadership of the United States and its allies.
The disconnect between Wolf’s statement in the foreword, however, and the body of the report was troubling, former senior officials said. “It seems designed a bit to try to appease the president in case he sees the report,” said Elizabeth Neumann, former DHS assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention.
Wolf, for instance, wrote, “While Russia has been a persistent threat by attempting to harm our democratic and election systems, it is clear China and Iran also pose threats in this space.”
Said Neumann, who left in April: “That’s true, but misleading. It makes it sound like China and Iran are on the same level as Russia, and the body of the document makes clear they are not.”
The report also avoids any mention of what intelligence agencies have privately concluded — that the Kremlin prefers to see President Trump win over his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in the November election.