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The House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol riot has hired an investigator that it probably should be bringing in as a witness instead.
The committee tasked with finding out how January 6 was allowed to happen announced last Friday that it had hired Joe Maher, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, to help run its investigation into the failures that led to the tragic day. That’s an alarming conflict of interest: Maher was running one of the key offices that may have contributed to that failure.
Maher, a career official with almost two decades at DHS, became head of its Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the beginning of August during a rocky period for the office that is tasked with monitoring and warning about risks of domestic terrorism.
Maher’s conflict of interest was brought to light on Wednesday by whistleblower attorney Mark Zaid, who represents Maher’s predecessor at DHS, Brian Murphy. Zaid said in a letter that Maher’s whistleblower complaint accused him of retaliating against Murphy and alleged that he “immediately shut down open-source collection efforts on domestic extremists.”
“How in the world does the Committee have credibility with him on the staff rather than in the witness chair?” Zaid asked in an email to VICE News.
The hiring is the latest embarrassing staffing move by the committee, as Maher is the second staffer they’ve hired who’s faced accusations of retaliating against government whistleblowers. An Inspector General report found committee staff director David Buckley, a Democratic hire, retaliated against a whistleblower, and some good-government groups have called for him to step down.
A committee spokesman insisted that the committee was setting up guardrails to prevent conflicts of interest from Maher, or anyone else, from interfering in the investigation.
“All members of the Select Committee staff are required to identify areas where a potential personal or organizational conflict of interest may exist, and staff leadership is taking affirmative steps to screen for such conflicts,” the spokesman told VICE News. “Any staff member deemed or determined to have an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict will disclose and recuse themselves from such matters.”
“How in the world does the Committee have credibility with him on the staff rather than in the witness chair?”
Murphy was pushed out of his position after reports that his team had been monitoring protestors’ and journalists’ private conversations during last summer’s protests in Portland, Oregon. He soon turned whistleblower, alleging in a September complaint that DHS officials were under inordinate pressure from Trump political appointees and the White House to downplay threats from white supremacist groups and oversell threats from the left, and that DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf had ordered them to stop putting out reports on Russian interference.
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee found in a bipartisan June report that while Maher led the DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, it did little to nothing to warn about the growing threat of right-wing domestic extremism. The office didn’t issue a single intelligence report that mentioned January 6 as a risky day even though right-wing militias were publicly targeting it as a day of mobilization and Trump was calling for his supporters to descend on Washington. The agency also didn’t issue any warnings for the entire week before the Capitol riots, and never mentioned the Joint Session of Congress or the Capitol in any reports.
Instead, the office’s January 5 national memo declared there was “Nothing significant to report,” the Wall Street Journal reported in February. Under Maher, the WSJ reported, the department cut its night shift of analysis from 10 to just two staffers, leaving the desk short-staffed during the busiest time of the day for online extremist chatter. And rules for what the department could monitor and report as concerning were severely curtailed.
Olivia Troye, a former DHS senior employee and counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who resigned in protest over the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus, has worked with both Maher and Murphy.
She said that when Murphy was in charge of the office, she and the rest of top Trump administration officials would regularly get intelligence reports on right-wing extremist and white supremacist groups. But she said “All of that reporting stopped” once Maher took over—something she saw firsthand in the few weeks she remained in the administration before quitting in late August, and heard from former colleagues continued afterwards.
“Some of the warnings and some of the updates would have been there if people hadn’t been gun-shy after what happened with Brian [Murphy], and then Joe [Maher] comes in and they're in a holding pattern and there wasn’t much production happening,” Troye told VICE News.
Maher obviously brings some expertise, as a two-decade DHS official. There are thorny First Amendment and privacy issues around how the government can monitor private conversations, and what amounts to an actual violent threat—a balance that Murphy’s team may have overstepped. A committee staffer says that Maher was removed from his position at DHS because of concerns that his office “had been improperly assembling intelligence on journalists.” His allies argue that Maher was aiming solely to clean up the mess that Murphy’s staff caused.
But whatever he did, his role at DHS is clearly part of any credible investigation.
Maher previously butted heads with Rep. Adam Schiff, a committee member and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, over DHS’ refusal to let the committee investigate Murphy’s claims. In September, Schiff accused Maher and DHS of “unlawfully obstructing” Murphy’s whistleblower complaint, and subpoenaed Maher for a testy hearing where Schiff accused Maher’s department of “persistently slow-walked security clearance requests.” Maher seemed to do his best to avoid answering Schiff’s questions.
Maher was hired at the recommendation of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the two House Republicans who agreed to serve on the committee. Cheney’s husband, Phil Perry, worked with Maher at DHS during the George W. Bush administration, when Cheney’s father Dick Cheney was vice president.
The unwanted attention could lead to unwanted intra-committee tensions, causing problems for Cheney and the Democrats are working hard to stay on the same page and get to the bottom of what happened, while proving a bipartisan effort to find the attacks’ causes can yield real results.
Maher didn’t respond to a request for comment, but defended himself through the committee.
“Mr. Maher believes that any allegations implicating him are entirely baseless, that he did not retaliate in any way against anyone, and that he did not take any steps to prevent the office from collecting intelligence on violent extremists of any type,” the committee spokesman said. “The Select Committee is committed to protecting whistleblowers and treating whistleblower information with the discretion and seriousness it deserves.”
“Ethically, he should recuse himself. He can make a difference and offer his help as a cooperating witness.”
Cheney’s and Schiff’s offices declined to comment.
Maher may have done nothing wrong. But even if Maher’s intentions were and are pure, putting him in charge of investigating the Capitol riot’s causes makes it damn tricky to investigate any failures he and his team made that may have contributed to it.
“How can you objectively do a fact-finding mission with no partisanship when January 6 happened under your watch? That’s the bottom line,” said Troye. “Ethically, he should recuse himself. He can make a difference and offer his help as a cooperating witness.”