Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Wednesday that it would not enforce a subpoena issued last week demanding BuzzFeed News identify its sources, a retreat from its earlier, stunning attempt to interfere with a news outlet operating under the protections of the First Amendment.
The subpoena was seen as an escalation in the Trump administration’s efforts to track down the identity of people who provide information to the media. It was met with criticism from media rights organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and even former ICE leaders, who called it a blatant overreach.
Wednesday’s statement from an ICE spokesperson said the agency “will not enforce the summons” against BuzzFeed News — “at this time.” The agency did say, however, that it will “pursue the investigation through other channels.”
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“On December 4, 2020, a summons was issued by one of our field offices to Buzzfeed, Inc. Office of General Counsel requesting information related to an allegation of potential ICE employee misconduct,” an ICE spokesperson wrote in a statement. “In response to the summons, the media outlet subsequently declined to provide details regarding the sources of the unauthorized disclosure of law enforcement sensitive information. At this time, ICE will not enforce the summons and will pursue the investigation through other channels.”
The subpoena was issued by an agent with the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, and concerned emails sent to ICE attorneys on a fast-track deportation program and plans to fine certain undocumented immigrants. It demanded that BuzzFeed News “provide all documentation including, but not limited to: (1) date of receipt, (2) method of receipt, (3) source of document, and (4) contact information for the source of the document.”
The subpoena stated that BuzzFeed News should produce the records to an ICE agent in Virginia by Dec. 22.
“Failure to comply with this summons will render you liable to proceedings in a U.S. District Court to enforce compliance with this summons as well as other sanctions,” the subpoena sent to BuzzFeed News read. “You are requested not to disclose the existence of this summons for an indefinite period of time. Any such disclosure will impede this investigation and thereby interfere with the enforcement of federal law.”
ICE officials issued a warning to employees in their statement to BuzzFeed News.
“As this investigation continues, employees will be reminded of their obligation to properly protect, safeguard, and transmit official information garnered during official business. Disseminating internal agency information outside one’s assigned duties and established whistleblower reporting processes is not appropriate and may subject an employee to discipline, among other serious adverse consequences,” the spokesperson said.
The subpoena was issued at the tail end of an administration that has targeted media. Specifically in the Department of Homeland Security, officials have warned employees not to discuss internal policies or documents with the media. They have also told employees to report colleagues they suspected of sharing sensitive internal information, along with those who requested information that fell out of their day-to-day duties.
It came just months after the Washington Post reported that DHS investigators had created “intelligence reports” about media members who had reported on leaked documents.
“Until ICE withdraws its subpoena completely, its stance toward the free press remains the same: anti-American, unconstitutional, and grossly inappropriate,” BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said.