Last month, 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 staffer.
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 report last month 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 claimed of his testimony, explaining that he came clean about only some aspects of the Portland operation.
In addition, the committee has 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. Dobitsch also served as an intelligence officer with the National Counterterrorism Center before joining I&A as acting under secretary for Intelligence Enterprise Operations, making her the third most senior intelligence official at the DHS, according to the Committee official. There, she played a central role in the Portland operation, according to two former intelligence officers with knowledge of the matter. However, the DHS has been 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.
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.”
Dobitsch does not appear to have faced any consequences for her involvement in the controversial Portland operation. While little is publicly known 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 sometimes 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.
After joining the DHS, Dobitsch was “promoted like crazy,” scoring three promotions in about a year, the former senior I&A intelligence officer said. “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 added, referring to I&A’s production of intelligence reports on journalists covering the Portland protests. 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. Despite this, a former intelligence officer familiar with the matter alleged that Dobitsch was careful to cover her tracks by refusing to memorialize certain directives on paper.
“She never takes notes and shreds everything…so HPSCI [the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] will never get her,” the former intelligence officer said. 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.