WASHINGTON -- An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official admitted he tipped off a reporter that Barack Obama’s aunt was undocumented just four days before the 2008 election because it was “interesting,” “newsworthy” and because “the American public [had] a right to know,” according to an internal report obtained by The Huffington Post.
A heavily redacted report from ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals that an agency employee admitted to calling an Associated Press reporter to inform him that President Barack Obama’s aunt might be an undocumented immigrant facing a removal order. ICE's investigation determined that the unnamed employee disclosed the woman's identity and immigration status to the media, displayed a "lack of candor" to investigators and misused government property.
The 20-page internal report was completed in August 2010 but the agency declined to provide it until this year. The report doesn’t indicate what, if any, disciplinary action was taken against the ICE official.
"ICE does not comment on whether management action is taken as a result of an investigation done by [the Office of Professional Responsibility] unless the resolution results in some kind of criminal or other public administrative action," said agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.
The unnamed official called the disclosure of the information "an error in judgment” but said his decision to call AP reporter Elliot Spagat on Oct. 31, 2008, wasn't politically motivated.
"I thought it was very interesting information, just like everybody else who was talking about it," the official told ICE investigators, according to the report. "And, um, you know now it was probably an error in judgment ... I think it was very interesting and I think it was newsworthy."
Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's father, was born in Kenya and came in 2000 to the United States, where she was denied political asylum in 2004. The Times of London published a story about her living in public housing in Boston on Oct. 30, 2008, but did not discuss her immigration status. The Associated Press began contacting ICE a day later, according to the report, and published a story that evening by Spagat and Eileen Sullivan.
Inquiries from reporters led to confusion at ICE, with one staffer mistakenly thinking the woman in question was "Osama Bin Laden's aunt, not Presidential Candidate Obama's aunt," and another apparently recognizing her name because he'd heard it on Rush Limbaugh's show.
The queries also ignited a flurry of meetings and calls about how to deal with the situation. Officials eventually decided they would respond to requests for comment by saying, "we do not discuss the status of any individual or their case." According to the investigation, that's how most of the media inquiries went: a reporter would call or email, and they would be told they couldn't get the information they'd asked for.
Behind the scenes, an employee was tasked with looking into Onyango’s immigration status, and the news that she was undocumented spread up the chain of command. ICE field offices were directed to notify headquarters for vetting of potential deportees who might attract congressional or media attention, according to the report.
That didn't sit well with some of the ICE staffers, at least one of whom felt the field officers were being micromanaged, but the official who leaked the information said such concerns weren't a motivating favor for him.
The official, who seems to have been working out of San Diego, contacted Spagat on his own. At first he told investigators the phone calls he made from his government phone were for social reasons. He said he had met Spagat through an official in ICE’s Office of Public Affairs in 2007 and had done two or three interviews with him.
“You know, it's one of these situations where we see each other and, uh, we say, Hey, we need to get together, have a beer or something. And, um, it never happens. And then I call him and leave a message. He would call me and leave a message. And it was one of those times where -- where I called to see where he was,” the official initially told investigators in response to questions about the phone calls.
But the official later admitted that he had called the reporter to talk to him about Onyango and that he'd said it was a social call as an excuse. He insisted he didn't intend to release sensitive agency information, according to the report, and said if he had, "he would not have communicated with [the reporter] using government telephones and would have instead used a payphone." He said he did not confirm the information and declined to conduct a query for the reporter.
The leak ultimately led to Obama's aunt being allowed to remain in the country. A Republican-nominated immigration judge called the leak “reckless” and granted Onyango asylum in 2010. Obama mostly stayed out of the controversy, but conservatives quickly expressed outrage, particularly after it was revealed that Onyango lived in state-subsidized public housing and had donated to her nephew's campaign. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said the decision to grant her asylum may have been due to "favoritism" simply because she was the president's aunt.
The official who leaked the information, meanwhile, told investigators that politics had nothing to do with his decision.
"I called [the reporter] because regardless of political affiliation," he said, "I think the American public has a right to know that."