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Intel arm of DHS defends office amid GOP senator's criticism

The Department of Homeland Security's intelligence arm hit back at Senator Marsha Blackburn's allegations this week, after she accused DHS of trying to police Americans' speech and thoughts.

"As members of the Intelligence Community, we continue to maintain a special public trust to execute our mission with honor and integrity," the memo circulated to DHS personnel operating within the Office of Intelligence & Analysis and obtained by CBS News read.

On Tuesday, Senator Blackburn's office sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas begrudging the department's latest NTAS bulletin, which urges Americans to report "potential threats" online and "maintain digital and media literacy to recognize and build resilience to false or misleading narratives."

"I am concerned about the appearance of the Department of Homeland Security policing the speech, thoughts, and opinions of American citizens," Blackburn wrote in her letter, first reported by Fox News. The Tennessee lawmaker has called on the department to amend the memo. 

During a corresponding floor speech, Blackburn alleged, "according to this bulletin, security is impossible in the face of dissent."

While Thursday's DHS internal memo circulated to staff does not mention the senator's speech outright, it defends the office's mission in concrete terms. 

"We are required to focus on threats to Homeland, and you are repeatedly asked to do this critical work while also protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and all other constitutionally protected activities at a time when the threat environment is more complex than ever," the note penned by Acting Under Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis John Cohen, adds. 

The memo was sent as the agency has been working to reshape its mission despite its rotating cadre of leaders and missteps that culminated in the agency's failures of specific intelligence sharing ahead of the January 6 Capitol assault. 

A previous DHS internal review also determined that DHS Intelligence and Analysis sent an unprepared and ill-trained workforce to assist with intelligence collection during the period of civil unrest in Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2020, which led to the dissemination of intelligence concerning American journalists covering the event.

Earlier this week, Cohen spoke during an event with George Washington University's Program on Extremism about efforts to reshape the agency after Portland, noting that the office he now leads "came under the review of the inspector general and other entities."

He discussed safeguards that had been put in place, "a series of detection to ensure that as we are evaluating online content, we are only evaluating content related to threats," and that information is being handled "in a way that is protective of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties."

Cohen assumed his temporary position at the helm of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis in July 2021 and is slated to be replaced by former Bush administration appointee Kenneth Wainstein, who awaits Senate confirmation. 

Thursday's memo goes on to describe DHS' fifth NTAS bulletin under the Biden administration as "the most detailed bulletin yet, providing transparency on the threat environment to all Americans, while also providing guidance and highlighting resources to prevent all forms of terrorism and targeted violence."

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