Immigration and Customs Enforcement press secretary Gillian Christensen needs to learn the classic Washington adage that the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.
She was recently forwarded a rather routine inquiry from the Washington Gadfly.
Morris Fischer, the lawyer for ICE whistleblower Taylor Johnson, contended that despite being stripped of her gun and badge, Johnson, shortly after the San Bernardino shooting, was dispatched to help lock down a Department of Homeland Security building just a few miles away. If true, this put Johnson and others in danger.
But instead of just responding with a pro forma denial, as she eventually did, Christensen first demanded to talk off the record, offering up confidential information in an attempt to discredit Johnson.
Washington employment lawyer Jason Zuckerman said that Christensen “publicly disparaging an employee,” particularly a whistleblower, is troubling and likely violates the federal Privacy Act.
The law does not distinguish between on or off the record conversations.
“The agency is basically retaliating [against a whistleblower] by publicly disparaging her,” he remarked. “That is how they do things at the DHS.”
But under the radar.
Asked about Christensen earlier this year an unnamed DHS spokeswoman said that the department does not talk about “specific personnel matters.”
Conservatives tend to overestimate the malevolence of the federal government. But Christensen’s ploy should disturb all Americans, not just those who, in their infinite wisdom, equate the IRS with the SS.
If the Department is so willing to disclose private material about their own employees it is worth wondering if they are up to any mischief with the information on millions of Americans that they presumably have. Besides, was this really the best way to spend her time?
Googling visa applicants, which the DHS famously eschews, would have been more productive. Ironically, in congressional testimony this June, Johnson alleged that the DHS retaliated against her for voicing concerns about a program known as EB-5 that gives visas to foreign investors.
After investigating the DHS Inspector General concluded that, “many USCIS employees to reasonably believe that specific individuals or groups were being given special access or consideration in the EB-5 program” and “an extraordinary number of DHS Inspector General’s office to report these events.”
From the beginning, it was evident Christen was up to no good.
In response to an inquiry to the main DHS press office Christensen emailed to ask that we talk on the telephone. Most flacks just email responses.
In Washington, when somebody refuses to discuss something via email and opts for a probably less efficient phone conversation, it usually means they are doing something sketchy.
When I called her, Christensen asked that we talk off the record before she provided an official statement. She said this would provide context. I told her no.
I rarely talk off the record with people. If I can’t use something I do not want to hear it.
But Christensen persisted, saying we should talk off the record so I can better understand the story. Otherwise, she contended, I might be missing crucial information.
At one time, she even suggested talking off the record would be a condition for an on the record statement. Finally, after more requests, I agreed to go off the record.
Everybody knows what employers say, usually falsely, about whistle blowers — they were problem employees, dishonest, etc.
After briefly hearing her out I told Christensen I did not want to talk off the record.
The conversation went something like this.
Gillian Christensen: How long have you been a reporter? Reporters talk off the record all the time.
Evan Gahr: Well, I don’t.
And then the money shot.
Christensen explained that she could not talk for the record because she was using confidential information.
Yes. But, uh, if the information is confidential then you’re not supposed to talk about it either on or off the record.
That inquiry was met with a few seconds of stunned silence.
She promised to email an official statement in response to Morris Fischer, the lawyer for Tiffany, saying the alleged lockdown assignment endangered her and others.
“Special Agent Taylor Johnson was not involved in ICE’s response to the shooting incident in San Bernardino or in securing the building where ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office is located,” it reads. “ Armed personnel from [Homeland Security Investigations, the Enforcement and Removal division] and the Federal Protective Service (FPS) secured the ICE facility in San Bernardino shortly after the shooting started. ICE and FPS maintained armed and trained personnel in the office and in the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week following the shooting, and they maintain that security posture to this day. Overall, the agency responded to the San Bernardino incident in a robust and decisive manner. Any suggestion to the contrary is inaccurate and a disservice to the law enforcement personnel who responded to the call of duty that day.”
She should have said that in the first place.
But my contentious exchange with Christensen may have prompted concern at the DHS. Shortly, after we spoke DHS acting secretary for public affairs Todd Breasseale [spelled correctly] followed me on Twitter. He did not reply to emailed questions.
Who at DHS authorized or encourage this behavior? Did he? Most employees are not lone wolves; they take cues from bosses.
Where did Christensen get the confidential information she was peddling? How often does she trash talk whistleblowers to reporters?
Perhaps somebody needs to put negative information in Christensen’s own file.