In October, The Nation reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) accessed Portland protesters’ phones, spurring a response from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Since then, Congress’s investigation has sought the testimony of more high-ranking federal officials than previously known—including a former White House advisor.
At a closed hearing before the House Intelligence Committee this September, Bryan Pendleton, a high-ranking official in the DHS’s intelligence division, testified about the Portland operation, according to both current and former intelligence officials familiar with the matter. Pendleton serves as director of the DHS Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) division called Homeland Identities, Targeting, and Exploitation (HITEC), which focuses on acquiring information about threats by using sophisticated technical methods like digital forensics.
“Generally, Dr. Pendleton testified that I&A leadership asked HITEC to explore providing technical assistance to the Federal Protective Services in exploiting protesters’ phones, and further, that such leadership requested updates on multiple occasions,” said a committee official. This appears to confirm a key part of my September report about how the DHS sought to access protesters’ phones in Portland.
“We interviewed HITEC Director Dr. Bryan Pendleton on September 10, 2020,” the official said. “He testified that because FPS did not possess a search warrant for the phones in question, HITEC did not assist FPS with their exploitation.”
But Pendleton may not have been entirely forthcoming. “Pendleton tried to play both sides of the fence,” a former senior I&A intelligence officer told The Nation explaining that Pendleton came clean about only some aspects of the Portland operation.
In addition, the committee sought the testimony of Stephanie Dobitsch, who previously served as Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser for the Middle East and North Africa and is described as a “Special Advisor to President Trump” in a 2019 foreign lobbying disclosure. (While the White House did not respond to a request for comment on her assignment, a representative for Dobitsch denies that she ever served as an advisor to the President.) Dobitsch also served as an intelligence officer with the National Counterterrorism Center before joining I&A where a Committee official says she serves as Acting Under Secretary for Intelligence Enterprise Operations of DHS I&A, making her “essentially the third most senior I&A official who is often the senior reviewer of intelligence products.” (Following the initial publication of this article, Dobitsch’s representative said that she has never served as Under Secretary—acting or otherwise—but that she “currently is performing the duties of one of the deputy under secretaries in her part of DHS.”) There, she played a central role in the Portland operation, according to two former intelligence officers with knowledge of the matter. (Dobitsch’s representative disputes this.) However, the DHS was apparently reluctant to provide Congress with Dobitsch’s testimony. “DHS has been slow in making her available, despite the committee making it clear she is a priority witness,” a committee official said of Dobitsch. (Dobitsch’s representative said that she did testify shortly after this article’s initial publication in what he called “a long-planned, voluntary appearance”; when asked for comment, an Intelligence Committee member’s office appeared to confirm that the hearing took place but did not provide specifics, citing the classified nature of the testimony.)
Asked to describe the nature of Dobitsch’s work, the White House did not respond; a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center’s parent agency, replied, “We don’t confirm employment details and don’t have anything for you.”
While little information is publicly available about Dobitsch, a Federal Register notice dated October 16, 2020 lists her as one of the high-ranking Senior Executive Service members eligible to serve on the DHS’s Performance Review Board. The University of Scranton, a private Jesuit university in Pennsylvania, includes her name in a 2007 newsletter. It describes Dobitsch’s “Intensive Arabic Studies” as preparing her for her work with an unnamed “US government agency.” Members of the secretive US intelligence community often decline to publicly acknowledge their agency affiliation, and Dobitsch worked for one such agency—the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency—prior to joining the National Counterterrorism Center.
Following the initial publication of this article, Chase Jennings, Press Secretary for DHS, said via email, “Ms. Dobitsch and Mr. PendIeton are honest and effective intelligence professionals that have served their country for many years. It is unfortunate that a reporter felt the need to resort to innuendo—lobbed by an unnamed person—when that reporter lacks actual facts showing any wrongdoing of exemplary, career intelligence professionals. Instead, he clutters his article with tidbits—unconnected to anything notable—such as the fact that an official was mentioned in a college newspaper article more than ten years ago.”
After joining the DHS, Dobitsch was “promoted like crazy,” scoring three promotions, the former senior I&A intelligence officer said. (A representative for Dobitsch disputes this, saying she has not been promoted at all unless you count her current role as one of the acting deputy under secretaries.) “It was her that started taking the open source intelligence reports and memos and directing them to be changed to suit Trump’s narrative,” he alleged, referring to I&A’s production of intelligence reports on journalists covering the Portland protests. A representative for Dobitsch vigorously denied this, alleging that “Ms. Dobitsch has never been involved in politicization of any intelligence” and has actively resisted such efforts. The representative also said that DHS has produced to the Intelligence Committee documents demonstrating that Ms. Dobitsch forcefully pushed back on another official’s apparent effort to attribute certain violence to individuals inspired by Antifa, whether or not the evidence supported such attribution. When asked for a copy of these documents to verify his claims, however Dobitsch’s representative declined to produce them.
After news of these reports was broken by The Washington Post, a firestorm of controversy ensued and the DHS’s chief intelligence official, Bryan Murphy, was removed from his role and reassigned.
A former high-ranking DHS official said that Murphy’s background in counterterrorism did not gel with I&A. Like Dobitsch, Murphy spent years working on counterterrorism matters involving foreign groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which he remained focused on while at I&A instead of domestic groups, the official said. Like Dobitsch, Murphy had been close to the White House, spending considerable time attending meetings at the National Security Council (NSC), an agency located in the Executive Office of the president. “He tried to set himself up as NSC’s liaison,” the former official said, noting how unusual the move was, given that NSC is focused on policy rather than intelligence assessment.
After the Portland controversy, some of I&A’s intelligence officers began taking copious notes on the orders they were being given, in anticipation of subpoenas from Congress or investigation by the inspector general. However, a former intelligence officer familiar with the matter alleged that Dobitsch generally avoided taking notes or otherwise memorializing activities. (A representative for Dobitsch also denied this.)
Every DHS source I spoke to seemed pessimistic about the likelihood that anyone would face consequences for their involvement in the Portland operation.
“He’s back at work, and they seem to be happy with his work,” the former senior I&A intelligence officer said of Pendleton, after his testimony to Congress in the closed hearing.
Update: this article has been updated to reflect comments from both DHS and a representative for Dobitsch, and to clarify the nature of her role in the Portland operation.