WASHINGTON — The acting secretary of homeland security said on Friday that he had shut down an intelligence examination of the work of reporters covering the government’s response to protests in Portland, Ore., beginning an investigation into what he suggested was an infringement on First Amendment rights.
The effort by the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence and analysis directorate — first revealed by The Washington Post — in part targeted The New York Times’s release of an intelligence analysis indicating that even as federal agents in camouflage deployed to quell the protests in Portland, the administration had little understanding of what it was facing.
The acting secretary, Chad F. Wolf, “is committed to ensuring that all D.H.S. personnel uphold the principles of professionalism, impartiality and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, particularly as it relates to the exercise of First Amendment rights,” said Alexei Woltornist, the department’s spokesman.
The intelligence office issued three “open-source intelligence reports” in the past week that summarized the Twitter posts of a Times reporter and the editor in chief for the blog Lawfare, noting that they had published leaked unclassified documents.
Mr. Wolf ordered the intelligence arm to “immediately discontinue collecting information involving members of the press” once he found out about the practice, Mr. Woltornist said.
One of the primary responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security is sharing information about national security threats to state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. The gaps in communication about such threats were among the motivating factors in creating a central cabinet department to coordinate security efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The department often distributes reports to information-collecting “fusion centers,” which then disseminate the intelligence to relevant agencies and police departments across the United States.
But such efforts were intended to focus on those with connections to terrorists or criminals, not journalists.
The directive comes as the agency and its leaders face backlash and investigations for their actions in Portland, where tactical teams of agents used tear gas and batons against protesters and forced individuals into unmarked vehicles. Some in the large crowds have also thrown rocks, bottles and commercial-grade fireworks at officers guarding a federal courthouse in the city.
“This is highly disconcerting if true, which is why these things need to be investigated,” said John Cohen, who used to run the intelligence office during the Obama administration. “At the very least, they have a perception problem because at no time should an intelligence community organization be collecting and disseminating intelligence products on U.S. journalists.”
“The politicization of intelligence or law enforcement activities is highly problematic and there always has to be a separation between the intelligence-gathering law enforcement activities from the political agenda of the administration,” added Mr. Cohen, who was also a senior adviser for the Bush administration.
It is not the first time the department has used resources to focus on journalists. A Border Patrol agent, Jeffrey A. Rambo, was the subject of a federal investigation for obtaining the confidential travel records of a Washington journalist and using them to press her about her sources in 2017.
Emails obtained from Customs and Border Protection by the Reporters Committee and the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that Mr. Rambo was in touch with the F.B.I. around the time that he pressured the journalist, who now works for The Times.
The reports issued by the department in recent days summarized tweets by Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare, who had shared multiple internal documents, including one post on July 24 showing a memo warning intelligence officers not to leak to the press.
The reports also included another tweet by Mr. Wittes showing an email from Brian Murphy, the current acting under secretary for intelligence and analysis, telling officers to begin referring to individuals attacking federal facilities in Portland as “VIOLENT ANTIFA ANARCHISTS.”
Mr. Murphy said he and other leaders in the intelligence office made the conclusion after reviewing so-called baseball cards of arrested protesters to understand their motivations. It came just days after officers with the department issued an intelligence report saying the agency had “low confidence” that the attacks against the federal courthouse reflected a broader threat.
“We lack insight into the motives for the most recent attacks,” they admitted in the briefing, which was first reported by The Times.
The Senate intelligence committee sent a letter on Friday to Mr. Murphy, pressing him for more information about the matter.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times, said that it was critical that the department not use such tactics on journalists.
“The Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged that its intelligence reporting system, designed to combat terrorism, has instead been misused to target journalists who were reporting on the controversial activities of federal law enforcement officers,” she said in a statement. “It is imperative that D.H.S.’s investigation determines how this happened and ensures it does not happen again.”
Mr. Wittes said there was nothing wrong with the agency sharing information about his tweets, noting that it prepared daily news clippings. “But to frame it as intelligence work product is a really odd thing,” he said.
“If you’re allowed to do this, what else are you allowed to do? If you’re allowed to keep tabs on and file reports about my social media,” he added, “are you allowed to gather all the other public record material that exists about me and create a dossier?”
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the agency’s actions on Friday, saying they were part of a larger pattern.
“Under Wolf’s leadership, D.H.S. was caught just last year unconstitutionally targeting and building dossiers on journalists reporting on conditions at the border,” the group’s senior legislative counsel, Neema Signh Guliani, said in a statement. “For weeks, D.H.S. agents have been deliberately and brutally attacking journalists covering the Portland protests. And documents show that D.H.S. intelligence arm appears to be claiming authority it does not have. This administration’s assault on the First Amendment continues to escalate.”
Gabe Rottman, a lawyer at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that the department’s focus on journalists had broader implications.
“Federal law prohibits the creation of ‘dossiers’ on journalists precisely because doing so can morph into investigations of journalists for news coverage that embarrasses the government, but that the public has a right to know,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Woltornist said Mr. Wolf found out about the practice from news reports on Thursday night, prompting former officials to question the stability of leadership in the agency. The Department of Homeland Security has not had a Senate-confirmed secretary since President Trump ousted Kirstjen Nielsen in April 2019.
“I’m concerned that what’s happening is there’s a lack of control and when there’s a lot of turnover, it takes a while to learn the DNA of the department,” said Michael Chertoff, a former secretary for homeland security under President George W. Bush. “It’s very hard to get a hold of the various components.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington, and Marc Tracy from New York.