ICE Spent Your Tax Dollars Dragging A Journalist Through The Internet Sewer Over A Mistake She Apologized For
from the fine-people dept
Law enforcement officers protect their own. Even when they shouldn’t. They are quick to react when one of them is slighted and they do so knowing their position as arbiters of law affords them more protection against internet randos than the little people they’re supposed to be serving.
But something that gets lost in these far-too-common reactions is that this is how taxpayers’ money is being spent: on vindictive actions that could have been handled with a 30-second statement or a press release that might take all of 20 minutes to compose.
But instead of letting things go and realizing their position of power is probably all the response that’s needed, tax dollars are spent converting hurt feelings into investigations of private citizens who managed to offend the powers that be. Ken Klippenstein has obtained documents from a FOIA request (and the de rigueur FOIA lawsuit) that shows ICE decided to get all investigatory when someone mistook a tattoo on one of its officials for a racist symbol. That this person was a journalist makes it all that more problematic.
In June of 2018, Talia Lavin, then a fact-checker for The New Yorker, found herself in an unusual position for a journalist: She personally became the target of a government agency. She had come under the scrutiny of ICE’s Office of Public Affairs, the public face of the agency that played a central role in President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented migrants.
When Lavin saw a tweet from ICE featuring one of its officials, Justin Gaertner, with a cross-shaped tattoo, she wondered if it was the Iron Cross familiar to Nazi iconography. She posted a tweet comparing them. When people began pointing out that it could be another symbol, like a Maltese cross, Lavin promptly removed the tweet. But it was already too late.
ICE first responded with a press release. It was not your normal press release. It accused Lavin (mentioning her name [but misspelled as “Levin”) of “baselessly slandering” the “American hero” who worked for the agency. It demanded an apology and a retraction from Lavin and The New Yorker. Following ICE’s public flogging of Lavin, she became a target for vitriol and abuse by white supremacists and alt-right figureheads. Fox News called her a “little journo terrorist.”
Eye for an eye and all that, I guess. You’d think ICE would have been satisfied with the shitstorm it had stirred up. It provoked a response and got some of what it wanted. Lavin not only apologized but she resigned from The New Yorker.
ICE’s main focus — according to the documents obtained by Klippenstein — was securing the future of the official pointed out in Lavin’s since-deleted tweet. The Public Affairs office began burnishing the official’s war record and claimed to have evidence of credible threats to the official’s life. But the only “threat” detailed in email threads was one from someone responding to Lavin’s tweet, stating that the person wished whoever had wounded the official in combat “would’ve finished the job.” Cue a whole bunch of government gears, all grinding tax dollars into salve for skin-deep scratches.
“HSI Tampa will be carefully assessing the twitter based threats and will take appropriate action,” an HSI official replied. “Looping in AD [Assistant Director] Ip for C3 [ICE Cyber Crimes Center] support. HSI Tampa will be submitting a SIR [Significant Incident Report] shortly.”
More remarkably, the email communications indicate ICE may never have seen Lavin’s tweet before it was deleted. ICE’s press office — for all the time it spent making sure its official remained unslighted — didn’t bother preserving the tweet it found so offensive that it issued a press release decrying the person who had published it.
One tweet by a journalist containing one innocent mistake (it’s no secret white supremacists are drawn to law enforcement positions) led to multiple DHS agencies being apprised of non-credible threats while ICE’s public affairs office decided it was in the best interest of the public to publicly attack a journalist for screwing up. It got what it wanted — a retraction, an apology, and a resignation — but at what cost?
Certainly ICE took a hit to its credibility. It may have been correct about the innocuous nature of the tattoo, but it made its point by turning a journalist into a target for internet pitchforks. This is called “punching down.” It could have issued a statement in support of the official and left it at that, but instead, it felt compelled to turn this into a public flogging and an internal investigation handled so sloppily the multi-billion dollar agency couldn’t even search the Wayback Machine for the tweet prompting its deluge of unprofessional behavior.