In June 2018, Talia became Lavin, then a fact checker for The New Yorkerfound herself in an unusual position for a journalist: she was personally targeted by a government agency. It had come under the control of the ICE Office of Public Affairs, the agency’s public face that played a pivotal role in President Trump’s fight against undocumented migrants. That role increasingly earned the agency the wrath of a growing movement that encompassed a range of resistance from faith groups to members of Congress. A Jewish activist group, Never Again Action, had gone so far as to draw parallels between the disturbingly poor conditions in ICE prisons and the concentration camps of the Holocaust. When Lavin saw a tweet From ICE with one of its officials, Justin Gaertner, with a cross-shaped tattoo, she wondered if it was the Iron Cross that Nazi iconography was familiar with. She posted a tweet comparing them. When people pointed out that it might be some other symbol like a Maltese cross, Lavin immediately removed the tweet. But it was already too late.
The next day, ICE shot back. There was a Press release, posted on a Twitter thread mentioning Lavin’s name. The statement accused Lavin of “baselessly slandering an American hero” whom she described as a battle-wounded Marine Corps veteran with both legs amputated, and asking her and her employer to apologize and withdraw. Lavin realizes she made a mistake, but the question she raised was hardly outrageous. even the FBI warned against it the presence of white supremacists in the ranks of the US law enforcement agencies. But Gaertner quickly became a celebre for many on the right.
Almost immediately, Lavin received a spate of abusive messages, including anti-Semitic and misogynistic slurs. The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer released an article titled “Greasy Fat K-e” Fact Checker; Talia Lavin confuses the war hero’s military tattoo with the “neo-Nazi symbol”. Right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous sent Paypal with Paypal $ 14.88 – an old-right abbreviation that combined a white supremacist slogan that “14 words” with the code for “Heil Hitler” – a stunt for Paypal suspended his account. The angry response would only build after Fox News’s Laura Ingraham aired a segment related to the ordeal, calling Lavin and another reporter, Lauren Duca, “petty journo terrorists” and calling for Lavin to be fired. Not just Lavin within a few days he apologizedShe resigned from her position The New Yorker where she had worked for three years. Today Lavin works as a freelance journalist.
“This is my Joker origin story about how I covered it on the far right,” Lavin said. She has now written a book on the subject. Lavin questions ICE’s claim that it “perpetuated” harmful allegations regarding Gaetner’s tattoo, pointing out that she deleted her tweet so quickly that no copy remains publicly. “I was thrown face first into a poison container because of a complete lie,” she says.
IIn August 2019, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) motion to learn more about what was going on behind the scenes. After a Kafkaesque lawsuit where ICE forwarded my request to the wrong department and didn’t respond as required within 30 days, I sued the department in federal court. (Full Disclosure: Lavin is a fellow campaigner in this case and has signed a privacy notice to authorize the disclosure of documents concerning her.) In October, ICE finally submitted documents that responded to my request. But my attorney Beth Bourdon was furious at the extent to which the agency edited or otherwise withheld records that clearly needed to be disclosed.
“I expect law enforcement to take a liberal view of what editors should consider when preparing documents for clearance on a FOIA filing,” said Bourdon, who filed the lawsuit on my behalf in the Florida Central District . “But the clear abuse of exceptions and the resulting absurdity by the editors in the recordings made by ICE were breathtaking and furious.”
After months of additional negotiations, we finally received fewer redacted documents. They evoke a deeply politicized and sometimes paranoid atmosphere reminiscent of President Trump’s most recent Rhetoric claims a “war against the police”. In one case, the documents reveal that senior ICE officials are working together to dispatch federal agents to respond to what appears to be a single non-colored tweet that they also posted an intelligence report on.
First, ICE set to work to put Gaertner in the best possible light. As one of the e-mails published to us as part of FOIA shows, ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea wrote on June 18: “I’m waiting for the blurb of [name redacted] so we can work something out about his [Gaertner’s] honorable service. ”
However, ICE was more than just a press release. Documents obtained through FOIA indicate that ICE Public Affairs warned the leadership of one of ICE’s law enforcement departments, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), of a credible threat to Gaertner’s life. An email from an edited source said, “As the FYI, Justin let me know that he and his family feel insecure and threatened by all of the threats on social media. I have informed SAC and management. ”
The only tweet referred to in the correspondence was undoubtedly malicious and read, “If Justin works for ICE, I wish that whoever wounded him in battle had quit the job.” However, it doesn’t appear to be a threat. Regardless, ICE pushed ahead, Liz Johnson, Deputy Director of Public Affairs, telling Acting Director Thomas Homan, along with the Head of HSI: “Unfortunately, this employee and his family have already faced some personal challenges that are now worsening threatening news they see online. OPR and HSI coordinate to support him … ”
“HSI Tampa will carefully review the Twitter-based threats and take appropriate action,” replied an HSI official. “Looping in AD [Assistant Director] IP for C3 [ICE Cyber Crimes Center] Support. HSI Tampa will file a SIR [Significant Incident Report] shortly.”
Incredibly, that chain of events was started by a tweet that ICE may never have seen. When asked about Lavin’s original tweet, ICE press secretary Jennifer Elzea replied, “I don’t have it on hand, but I’ll see if we can find it. I have the tweet that she mentioned it was deleted . ”
W.While it is normal for government public affairs offices to promote the agencies’ mission and policies, private individuals – particularly journalists – are rarely selected. Press releases tend to take on a formal tone, possibly because of the legal scrutiny they must go through, particularly on issues that are considered politically sensitive. This oversight would make it unlikely that ICE’s tweets about Lavin didn’t at least get through the desks of high-ranking officials.
“It is certainly unusual and unprofessional. … The tweet is definitely not your typical public affairs product,” said James Schwab, former ICE public affairs officer, in the ICE press release. Schwab has served as a public affairs officer with ICE since the Obama administration and resigned in 2018 because he saw it as an extremely political shift within the agency. “It was horrible,” he told me. “It was no longer a public affair, it became a propaganda machine.”
According to Schwab, the incident could imply an unspoken political hierarchy within the federal government. “ICE is the agency that is best connected to the president and his administration,” he said. “These types of ICE statements are often drafted or heavily influenced by appointed presidents at ICE headquarters.”
Schwab stated that during his tenure under the Trump administration, “Statements that would attract a lot of attention have been clarified by ICE headquarters and then forwarded to a DHS spokesman for approval. This approval often included contributions from the White House, particularly Stephen Miller. ”
Miller is a senior adviser to Trump who has emerged as a major proponent of tough immigration policies within the administration. Some of the guidelines Miller served as the architect for include the Travel ban, the Family separation Politics (according to which undocumented children are separated from their parents) and a Take action the United States would admit about the number of refugees. While the documents are received from The nation Don’t mention Miller or any other White House official. Schwab emphasized that ICE is careful not to put things down in writing.
“ICE is notorious for keeping shit out of email,” said Schwab. This practice may have permeated the entire DHS. In 2018 Buzzfeed News reported Then-DHS Secretary John Kelly instructed an officer not to avoid email reminders of their work. He said, “FOIA is real and commonplace here in the cesspool, and even federal court action on personal accounts is real.” (Ironically, BuzzFeed received the comment in response to a FOIA lawsuit.)
IDespite the support from above, paranoia has gripped the ICE. How I reported ICE last year has complemented his usual activities Operation Frozen Shield is a series of improved security measures to protect against threats such as active shooters. The operation was in response to then acting secretary Kevin McAleenan described Two examples are given in a “Trend of Violence Against Our ICE Officers” memo: an armed attack on an ICE facility in Tacoma, Washington, and one in San Antonio, Texas. (No ICE employees were injured in either of these incidents.)
In June of this year I reported that the Trump administration had tacitly granted ICE greater secrecy privileges under a special designation as a “security agency”. The label, typically reserved for agencies performing highly sensitive jobs like the FBI and Secret Service, allows ICE to hide identifying features of staff from disclosure, including name, job, title and salary information. This designation applies not only to agents on site, but to all ICE employees. ICE’s sister agency for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was given the same name, and as I reported in February, a memo from the agency cited a single Twitter user as a justification for posting publicly available information about ICE and CBP officials .
“Last summer, CBP and DHS became aware of a Twitter user posting employee information that is often found in the OPM [Office of Personnel Management] Open government releases of salary information for federal employees, ”the memo reads. “The information posted on Twitter was considered public information by OPM and is available on several federal employee salary database searches. This is just one of the many examples where the disclosure of CBP employee information has been harmful. ”
In the course of my FOIA complaint, the Department of Justice repeatedly pushed back our attempts to identify the names of the employees involved. At the time of this writing, we are still fighting in court for ICE to reveal more names to be involved in the correspondence.
Employee safety may not have been the only motive behind ICE here. In an email attachment titled “The Power of Social Media,” ICE describes the viral success of its tweets about Lavin. “A fact checker with the New Yorker shared a photo of an ICE employee that she found on the ICE Twitter account and falsely accused him of having a Nazi tattoo,” she says. “This resulted in a false narrative spreading quickly on social media.” However, the document prides itself on the visibility of ICE’s response, stating that “approx. 2.8 million users saw the tweet thread. “It mentions some other high traffic tweets from the ICE account. Those above Lavin were the top performers.