An Investigation Raises Ire at ICE

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, June 8, 2008

When Post reporters call government agencies for comment on an investigation soon to be published, it is not good news for public affairs officers.

Post reporters -- or any reporters for that matter -- don't do investigations to report that everything is hunky-dory. They do investigations to highlight problems that need to be corrected.

Agencies and reporters look at investigations decidedly differently. Agency officials don't like to see documents leaked, unhappy employees interviewed or major problems revealed. They resent reporters digging into problems that they may feel are being or have been corrected.

So it was no surprise that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were upset about a four-part series that ran May 11-14, about the health care of immigrant detainees. Veteran reporters Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein detailed mistakes that led to some of the 83 detainee deaths in the past five years, showed serious gaps in mental health treatment, revealed suicides that could have been prevented and found medically unnecessary drugging of deportees for the trip back to their home countries. Immigrant health care is managed by ICE's Division of Immigration Health Services.

ICE press secretary Kelly Nantel said that the series was "unethical, adversarial . . . misleading and highly editorial in nature" and "more harmful than helpful." She said in an interview that DIHS health professionals were "devastated" by it.

It is the nature of investigative journalism to be probing, independent and hard-hitting. That's what makes that kind of journalism so powerful.

Priest and Goldstein were tipped that there were serious problems in health care for ICE detainees and looked at the conditions without ICE's knowledge. The series took months of reporting, sifting through thousands of government documents, plus interviews with many detainees, their families, their lawyers and sources familiar with the system.

The reporters wanted to operate quietly, not tipping anyone off to what they were working on. Only near the end of the reporting did they ask for comment. Agencies don't like that. Officials often want to point to policies or standards or may be working to correct the problems; reporters want to show where those policies have been ignored.

Nantel said the reporters "drew their own conclusions." That is true; they had facts to back them up. She wrote that ICE "is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who come through our detention facilities each year." Nantel feels that facts favorable to ICE were "purposely omitted." The reporters didn't ignore what ICE had to say. ICE comments and explanations appeared throughout the series, including mentions of expanding staffs and building new facilities.

The series did not condemn all medical personnel working for ICE as irresponsible or incompetent. But it did point out many instances of incompetence or ineptitude or lack of care. Several times in the series, medical officials are quoted bemoaning the lack of staff, voicing a fear of lawsuits and being critical of ICE and its policies.

One of the points of the series was to report that ICE, born in 2003 after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, has not been able to adequately handle the skyrocketing number of detainees and that medical care has not kept pace with the growing detainee population. The series has gotten congressional attention; that could help resolve some problems.

This kind of project didn't get the laudatory letters and calls from readers that were generated by the series in which Priest, Anne Hull and Michel duCille exposed the poor treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That series won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Priest also won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for revealing an overseas network of secret U.S. prisons for terrorism suspects. Goldstein was part of a team that won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on terrorism.

The detainee series was about illegal immigrants, most of whom will be deported. Many are poor, sick and without legal counsel or advocates, and some have committed crimes, often minor, that are leading to their deportation. So they don't earn readers' sympathy or favorable comments. But one of journalism's historic missions is to look at how government treats the voiceless and underprivileged.

I reviewed specific ICE complaints and the material on the agency's Web site criticizing the series; a much longer ombudsman's answer is on washingtonpost.com. I thought the series was excellent and detailed, and I found no serious errors. I viewed many of the documents the reporters relied on.

But I wish that the reporters had interviewed high-ranking ICE officials for explanations of why detainee health care had so many serious problems. The series also should have noted that there had been no suicides in detainee facilities in the past 15 months; it also should have made earlier mention of the fact that the policy on drugging detainees for their deportation flights had been changed.

Nantel criticized the reporters for giving her what she considered inadequate time to prepare answers. The reporters said they alerted her on April 29 as the series was being prepared; the reporters sent the first specific questions May 2 and asked for answers by May 7.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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