Why I'm Suing DHS For the '14 Words' Emails It Refuses to Release

A DHS press release echoed an infamous white supremacist slogan. DHS says any connection is a "conspiracy theory" but is suppressing emails about it.
October 30, 2020, 2:14pm
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Image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, the Trump administration dismissed complaints that a press release issued by the Department of Homeland security was a reference to a notorious white supremacist slogan, calling it a “Twitter troll conspiracy theory.” But the administration is fighting hard to prevent the disclosure of materials that shed more light on the press release. 

The Department of Homeland Security press release, titled "We Must Secure The Border And Build The Wall To Make America Safe Again," went viral back in the summer of 2018, several months after its publication, as social media users pointed out that its phrasing echoed the so-called 14 Words, a white-supremacist slogan that reads, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” 

Shortly after the press release sparked outcry, I filed a public records request seeking the correspondence that went into drafting and disseminating it. Homeland Security and the White House stalled, waiting a year and a half before turning over 24 pages of emails so heavily redacted that fewer than one line of the bodies of the emails is legible per page.   

This week, with the help of pro bono lawyers secured by the nonprofit Gumshoe Group, I sued DHS in Brooklyn federal court to demand that DHS turn over the remaining documents. 

“The stark dismissiveness of Plaintiff’s reasonable requests, which were wholly permitted by the spirit and the letter of FOIA, requires that Plaintiff seek this Court’s assistance in compelling DHS to do what the law requires them to do,” reads the complaint, written by lawyers Eleanor Lackman and Timothy Carter.  

Back in 2018, DHS’s press office shrugged off the comparison between its 14-word headline and the 14 words periodically uttered by Nazis in connection with mass murder plots. Nevertheless, the agency has fought the release of further information regarding how the release came to be. This information is crucial because it could reveal the intent behind the press release and the discussions that led to it being issued.

After receiving the 24 pages in March of this year, I filed an administrative appeal, arguing that DHS made improper redactions, and also apparently withheld correspondence with reporters, given that no communication with the news outlets that covered the controversy appeared in what DHS provided. My appeal was adjudicated by a Coast Guard lawyer named Sarah Grabenstein. 

She wrote that while DHS “performed an adequate search” for the reporter correspondence, it improperly withheld the name of a White House employee involved in the drafting, at the White House’s request. “I disagree with the withholding of the name,” she wrote.

Pressed about whether DHS planned to reveal the name, Grabenstein told me over email, “[The DHS Privacy Office] will not accede to my position, so I do not expect that [they] will be sending you the unredacted information.” She suggested that I sue in federal court. 

One name that does appear in the documents as an author of the press release is Katie Waldman. Today she is better known as Katie Miller, press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence and wife of stridently anti-immigrant Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who is the architect of much of Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and many of his anti-immigration policies. 

But in 2018, Waldman’s relationship with Miller was still budding as, according to Vanity Fair, he sought to exert control over DHS’s press office and found a willing helper in her. The searing images of border agents separating migrant children from their parents that summer were reportedly a culmination of Miller’s influence campaign at the agency, and served as the backdrop for online scrutiny of the “We Must Secure the Border” press release. 

Katie Miller later told journalist Jacob Soboroff of the period, “DHS sent me to the border to see the separations for myself—to try to make me more compassionate, but it didn’t work.” 

Also among the drafters: 

  • Dimple Shah, reportedly an ally of Miller’s one-time mentor, the anti-immigrant hardliner Sen. Jeff Sessions, and at the time deputy general counsel to DHS 
  • Emily Costanzo, who has gone on to work as a speechwriter for Texas Sen. John Cornyn 
  • ICE legal adviser Tracy Short, who authored a new interpretation of the law to make it harder for victims of domestic or gang violence to qualify for asylum in the U.S. and is now the country’s chief immigration judge 
  • Jonathan Hoffman, a border official under George W. Bush who is now a Pentagon spokesman 
  • Christyn Lansing, a flack for Congress, Politico, and various Republicans before coming to DHS. Lansing has since made the jump to the private sector by way of a new P.R. firm co-founded by the former comms guy for Koch Industries. 
  •  

Beyond the names, the imprint of Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, and once-marginal right-wing immigration policy think tanks on the release is unmistakable. As a document, it’s confusing. Below the headline, the press release reads, “Walls Work. When it comes to stopping drugs and illegal aliens across our borders, border walls have proven to be extremely effective.” And yet, what follows is a bullet point list of statistics, some true, some contradicted by other federal data, and none having to do with the efficacy of walls in protecting borders. 

Instead, as with the more recent billboards highlighting the faces of men “Wanted by ICE” in Pennsylvania and Border Patrol’s lurid propaganda video showing the staged murder of a citizen by an undocumented migrant, the stats seem primarily geared at painting the border as a warzone, and the people crossing it as enemy combatants.

“The Department of Homeland Security has over the past few years manipulated statistics by showing what may be true numbers, but completely manipulating them in ways that the actual facts don’t support,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel to the American Immigration Council. As an example, he cited a supposed increase in assaults against border agents that stemmed from the agency multiplying the number of people involved in an altercation by the number of objects they used as weapons. The inflated assault figure appears in the “We Must Secure the Border release,” which Reichlin-Melnick said “is one of the worst in terms of cherry-picking statistics to show the border as in chaos.” 

What role the White House played in coming up with the particular message conveyed in this press release, and who specifically played it, remain to be seen. I am suing in hopes of finding out what they're hiding.

DHS and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.