ICE Probe of Retaliation against House of Death Reporter Seriously Flawed

Federal Agency Investigates Itself and, “Surprise,” Finds No Wrongdoing, FOIA Records Show


The internal affairs unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, whitewashed an investigation into an act of intimidation carried out by two of its agents against a journalist, according to an analysis of Freedom of Information Act documents obtained recently by Narco News.

The offending agents worked for ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility (internal affairs), which, like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, turns out to be the very same unit that was charged with investigating the agents' intimidating actions, the FOIA records reveal.

So, OPR was essentially investigating itself.

In addition, the OPR agents who “investigated” the offense failed to interview any of the witnesses to the intimidation or even the complaining party, said the president of the Federal Hispanic Law Enforcement Officers Association (FHLEOA), Sandalio Gonzalez, a former high-ranking DEA commander.

“The [ICE/OPR] investigation was a sham,” says Gonzalez, who reviewed the FOIA records at Narco News’ request. “The principal witnesses were never interviewed nor was I as the complainant.

“… I worked for OPR [for a short time at the DEA] and it is standard procedure in any investigation to talk with the complainant and witnesses. … OPR is supposed to be the guardian of integrity for the agency, and here they are accused of misconduct and they investigate themselves. That’s total B.S.”

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, failed to return calls or to reply to an e-mail from Narco News seeking comment on the FOIA documents.

The revelations in the FOIA records are seen by this journalist, and not a few law enforcers, as part of an ongoing effort by ICE to keep under wraps the agency’s complicity in the ongoing cover-up in the House of Death mass murder — a cover-up that also implicates a former U.S. Attorney who is a close personal friend of former President George Bush.

FHLEOA describes the dynamics of the situation in a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General -- the same letter that prompted OPR’s whitewashed investigation:

 … For doing his job well as an investigative reporter … Mr. Conroy has now been targeted for retaliation by DHS bureaucrats in what can only be described as a blatant display of bully tactics, intimidation, and abuse of authority….

 … Our Board of Directors has concluded that the ultimate objective of the OPR “interview” of Mr. Conroy was to obtain the names of the federal employees who made protected whistleblower disclosures to the press, to intimidate Mr. [Bill] Conroy and his family, and to get him fired from his [day] job…. These actions are reprehensible to say the least....

Yes, the journalist who was visited with the act of intimidation by ICE agents was this Narco News correspondent.

The Back Story

Narco News sent a FOIA request to ICE way back in June 2005, shortly after ICE agents made threatening visits to this reporter’s home and workplace (another newspaper that has nothing to do with Narco News or its coverage of the House of Death).

A dozen people between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 were tortured, murdered and then buried in the backyard of a house (the House of Death) in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city south of El Paso, Texas. A U.S. government informant under the supervision of ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor helped to arrange and even participated in a number of those murders — with the knowledge of his ICE supervisors.

Evidence of the U.S. government’s efforts to cover-up its complicity in that carnage was later exposed exclusively by Narco News in a series of stories pointing the finger at high-level officials within DHS and the Department of Justice — including then-U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, a long-time insider with the Bush administration.

During the visits to this journalist’s home and office, the ICE agents were very ambiguous about their purpose, stating initially that they only wanted to know Narco News’s “source” — which of course this reporter refused to divulge on any subject. After some prompting, one of the agents finally indicated that they were interested in a story Narco News had published based on an unclassified ICE memo that revealed the agency was altering terrorism-related case files in a law enforcement database.

This explanation seemed odd at the time since that story and related memo had been published on April 7, 2005, nearly two months prior to the May 23 and May 24 visits (to my home and office, respectively) by the ICE OPR agents. If ICE was so concerned about that memo being leaked and posted online, then why did they wait so long to send their internal affairs agents to interrogate a Narco News correspondent?

What seems far more plausible is that the visit was timed to Narco News’ coverage of the House of Death case and the record-altering memo was simply used as a pretext for that visit. Between March 23 and May 5 of 2005, Narco News published a series of five stories exposing for the first time then-U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton’s role in the cover-up of the House of Death mass murder and his efforts to retaliate against the DEA commander who blew the whistle on that cover-up. (That DEA commander is FHLEOA President Gonzalez, who served as the Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s El Paso field office at the time of the House of Death murders and subsequent government cover-up of a paid ICE informant's role in those homicides.)

Narco News’ FOIA request sought, among other things, information that would explain the underlying purpose of the ICE agents’ visits and the identity of the individuals within the government who ordered that a Narco News reporter be interrogated and intimidated. (The ICE agents confronted my wife and child at our home and even questioned my boss at work in an apparent effort to get me fired from my job.)

ICE stonewalled the release of any information under that FOIA request since it was filed more than five years ago, telling Narco News it was parked in line within its huge FOIA backlog or otherwise seeking to advance various FOIA exemptions as an excuse for not releasing the requested information.

Finally, after several appeals by Narco News, ICE, in a letter dated July 29 of this year, conceded that “the records which were withheld in full … may have been withheld erroneously.” [Emphasis added.]

“There appear to be portions of the 20 pages which although reasonably segregable were nonetheless withheld in full,” the letter continues.

About a month after that July 29 letter from ICE conceding its mistake  (and with the threat of a potential lawsuit hanging over the agency's head due to its failure to comply with FOIA), the records were finally delivered to Narco News via the U.S. mail.

The Whitewash

The FOIA records show that DHS/OIG on June 8, 2005, declined to investigate the charges raised in FHLEOA’s June 3, 2005, letter and the case was referred that same day to the agency accused of sponsoring the intimidating visits, ICE/OPR.

However, it was not until some two years later, in June 2007, that the case was actually closed by OPR, even though the investigation appears, according to the FOIA records, to have involved only one interview — of the OPR supervisor who oversaw the agents who visited my home and office.

From the FOIA records:

On June 4, 2007 [at that point, two years after the so-called investigation was opened, OPR investigators] interviewed [name blacked out] ASAC [Assistant Special Agent in Charge], OPR, San Antonio, TX … [He] was questioned concerning his knowledge of actions taken by [ICE OPR agents] in connection with their contact with reporter Bill Conroy during May 2005.

… Investigation indicates [ICE OPR agents] contacted reporter Conroy in furtherance of an official investigation being conducted by the OPR San Antonio Office [the same city that was the home base of then-U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton] and in compliance with a proper directive to do so given by [name blacked out]. This investigation is closed.

The FOIA records, which are heavily redacted, indicate that the purpose of the OPR investigation revolved around a “memorandum … provided to reporter Conroy who in turn posted a portion of the memorandum on the website narcosphere”

“After making an unsuccessful attempt to contact reporter Conroy at his residence … [ICE OPR agents] contacted Conroy at his place of business [which had nothing to do with Narco News],” the ICE’OPR report of investigation states. (It is important to note here that after the ICE agents showed up at my home when I was, in fact, at work, and interrogated my wife, with one of our children present, I attempted to call one of the agents, who failed to return that call.)

“As expected,” the report of investigation continues, “Conroy declined to answer the agents’ questions. The [agents] then departed Conroy’s office [again, not before interrogating my boss, who has no relation to Narco News, in an apparent effort to get me fired from my job.]

One former ICE supervisor, who asked not to be named, offered this insight into the ICE/OPR “investigation.”

The OPR agents stated that as expected you declined to answer questions. SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] generally recommends not to PO [tick off] the press. HQ [headquarters] types do not want negative media coverage.

Therefore, in my experience, the visits to your office and home were to intimidate you by embarrassment, since they did not expect you to be responsive. SOP dictates if an agent is trying to solicit cooperation from a potential witness, the last thing you want to do is make him/her a hostile witness. The agent would have/should have made telephonic contact to solicit the information or to set up a private interview.

From the start, ICE/OPR seems to have never taken this farce of an investigation seriously. It was immediately downgraded to a “non-criminal” probe focused on “failure to get approval to interview member of the press.” FHLEOA’s allegations of retaliation and intimidation were dismissed out of hand.

“In his letter, Mr. [Gonzalez] alleges that a visit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Professional Responsibility [agents] to Bill Conroy ... was retaliatory and constituted an abuse of authority,” the ICE/OPR report of investigation states. “… According to the letter, the purpose for the … visit was to intimidate certain unknown federal whistleblowers who made unspecified disclosures to the press. Aside from the mere fact that the agents presence was unwanted, … the letter does not articulate specific acts or behavior on the part of agents that would rise to the level of official misconduct.”

In fact, FHLEOA’s letter references specifically a May 24, 2005, article by Narco News founder and publisher Al Giordano that lays out in detail the nature of the intimidation carried out by the ICE/OPR agents and the likely reasons for that abusive behavior. Read the story at this link.

In addition, two members of the U.S. Congress — current U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas; and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia — sent letters to DHS seeking an explanation for the ICE agents’ actions in my case. Both of those letters were sent in 2005, shortly after the incident, and well before the close of the so-called ICE/OPR investigation.

From U.S. Rep. McKinney’s letter, addressed to the head of DHS and to the U.S. Attorney General — at the time, Alberto Gonzales:

In particular, General Gonzales, I address this letter to you because many eyebrows have been raised here in Congress by the confluence of facts that demonstrate that Mr. Conroy, as a journalist, has reported a series of stories involving the “House of Death” case in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in which an undercover informant in the process of seeking to make a drug case for U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton’s office, allegedly committed numerous homicides while under the protection of that office.

Since it is well known throughout Washington that federal agents do not, as a rule, visit journalists in attempts to discover sources without authorization from the U.S. Attorney with jurisdiction, the behavior of the agents is seen as an attempt by U.S. Attorney Sutton to intimidate a journalist who has reported facts that are embarrassing to him.

The Aug. 19, 2005, reply to U.S. Rep. Gonzalez’ letter (only some two months after my case was referred to ICE/OPR for investigation and some two years before the case was closed) appears to demonstrate that the fix was already in with respect to the investigation into FHLEOA’s charges.

From that DHS letter, written by Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Pamela J. Turner:

Under DHS Delegation Order 7030, the Secretary of Homeland Security delegated all authority with respect to the investigation of alleged misconduct committed by officers, agents, or employees of ICE … to the Assistant Secretary for ICE [then Michael Garcia, who, as head of ICE at the time, is implicated in the House of Death cover-up]. The Assistant Secretary for ICE has delegated such authority to the Director of OPR.

Pursuant to these delegations, ICE OPR Special Agents have broad authority to conduct investigations into allegations of employee misconduct. This authority includes interviewing ICE employees as well as members of the public…. Members of the press are not entitled to any special treatment in this regard. …

Given that the ICE/OPR director reports to the head of ICE, who, at the time, was himself linked to the House of Death cover-up, how can anyone believe there was an arms-length investigation conducted into the alleged intimidation of the Narco News journalist who exposed the cover-up?

So, it seems, in keeping with the effort to whitewash the ICE/OPR report of investigation, the agents in charge of the case didn’t even bother to take the concerns of two members of Congress seriously, or bother to read Giordano’s article, which is referenced specifically in FLEHOA’s letter and contains the specific charges against the offending agents. And beyond that, they never bothered to interview any of the witnesses to the alleged offenses, which would have included my wife and me at a minimum; nor did they interview the complaining party, FHLEOA President Gonzalez.

How can such an investigation be dubbed anything other than a whitewash? 

And that reality might explain why ICE, for more than five years, has fought to prevent the release of even this small sample of the records requested under FOIA. The justification, and nature, of the underlying investigation that led to the interrogation of a reporter still remains a mystery, since those records, if they exist at all, have not yet been released.

Attorney Mark Conrad, a former supervisory special agent in the Internal Affairs division of U.S. Customs, which has since been merged into ICE, provided the following comment to Narco News via e-mail after reviewing the FOIA records:

I had to read it [the FOIA documents] a couple of times and I am still not sure what it says except it is bullshit. I do NOT know who authorized/initiated the inquiries regarding you by OPR but those guys did not go visit your wife or you without very senior authority OR there are some rogue elements out there. 

Based on my prior experience with Customs and dealing with reporters, this HAD to have had the concurrence of the local OPR guy in charge, his boss in D.C. and, [then U.S. Attorney] Sutton and someone at main DOJ, at least at the Assistant Deputy AG level.

This was clearly an intimidation tactic and obviously you are getting too close to the truth that involves some very powerful people. What I don’t understand is why the Obama people have not seized on this — unless there is in fact some really serious stuff below the surface that affects both parties. I suspect that is in fact the case here.

… If the Obama administration wants to clean house, [he should] appoint a special prosecutor to look at Sutton and the rest of the [people] that surrounded him. Clear them or indict them. They are entitled to a clean bill of health or to face trial. …

Stay tuned ….

[The FOIA records released to Narco News can be found at this link.]

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