The Trump Administration is requesting that Splinter “return...or destroy” all copies of a spreadsheet containing shockingly sensitive details of calls to a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement hotline purportedly aimed at crime victims and “refrain from using” the information in any further reporting.
Splinter first reported on the spreadsheet on Tuesday. It contained social security numbers, cell phone numbers, home addresses, and other details that could make it easy for subjects to determine who called the Victims of Immigrations Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline to inform on them.
The hotline, which promises anonymity to callers, was announced by the Trump White House in April. The spreadsheet, which had been partially redacted in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act but left descriptions of the calls unredacted, was published on ICE’s FOIA web site.
On Wednesday, an ICE lawyer sent a letter to Jonathan Schwartz, the chief legal and corporate affairs officer of Splinter’s parent company Univision, demanding that we destroy or return the spreadsheet. The letter, which was sent to Schwartz via UPS as well as emailed to the two Splinter reporters who wrote the story, is the first official acknowledgement that ICE had accidentally published private and potentially dangerous information on its web site for anyone to download. ICE had previously declined to confirm or deny the breach.
As you may have reasonably foreseen, the records obtained by you contained ICE information that may be protected by the deliberative process and law enforcement privileges, as well as information ordinarily exempt from release under the FOIA. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 502(b), we are hereby notifying you that the records contain privileged information. We request that you return, sequester, or destroy these records. Please note that any further use or disclosure of the information contained in these records could impede or interfere with law enforcement activities and violate the privacy rights and interests of the people whose information is contained in the records. Further, should you perpetuate the use of disclosure of any of this information, you may endanger the persons to whom the information pertains.
The letter’s description of the sensitivity of the spreadsheet and the harm that could be caused if the information it contained were disclosed renders ICE’s publication of it all the more baffling. Splinter came across the spreadsheet while searching Google for information related to VOICE. We first alerted the ICE public affairs staff to the presence of the spreadsheet on Friday, and sent a direct link to it on Monday, one full day before we published the story. ICE didn’t manage to take it down until several hours after we had published, by which point many readers had been able to find it.
Richard Barajas, a former federal judge who is the Executive Director of National Organization for Victim Assistance whom we quoted in the story, told Splinter that ICE’s publication of the spreadsheet was “a phenomenal security breach.”
The letter cited no legal authority for the request that we destroy the document. It is unusual for law enforcement agencies to demand that news organizations destroy or return the fruits of the their newsgathering efforts—particularly when the information involved isn’t classified or governed by a court protective order. Splinter has not reported any sensitive or private details contained in the spreadsheet.
“That is highly unusual,” said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, a public-education arm of the Newseum Institute. “They’re probably trying to mitigate their own error. It’s sort of the equivalent of them wanting you to delete their embarrassing tweets.”
A Univision spokesperson told Splinter that “the Company has not yet officially received the letter from ICE but will respond appropriately when it does.”