Bad Watchdog S2 E4: The Battle

The Department of Homeland Security is a very large, very powerful federal agency. It’s also extremely secretive. Who monitors the agency and holds it accountable the actions it takes as part of its mission to protect the homeland?

The Department of Homeland Security is a very large, very powerful federal agency. It’s also extremely secretive. Who monitors the agency and holds it accountable the actions it takes as part of its mission to protect the homeland? In this episode, Maren explains how hard it is just to access information about conditions in DHS detention facilities. She breaks down the ways agencies like DHS withhold information from the public — and how journalists and advocates fight back. And she explains how transparency has always been an issue at DHS, detailing how the post-9/11 push to create an agency dedicated to counterterrorism raised lawmakers’ concerns about accountability, civil rights, and civil liberties at its founding.  

POGO Senior Paralegal Lance Sims walks Maren through the five-year — and, at times, absurd — legal fight to get DHS to release reports documenting abuses and poor conditions in its detention centers. Former POGO Senior Researcher Freddy Martinez examines the larger pattern these reports revealed, and what that pattern indicated about systemic issues in DHS detention facilities. 

If you enjoy Bad Watchdogsign up for emails from the Project On Government Oversight to learn more about POGO’s mission and work.

Bad Watchdog is a member of the Airwave Media network and a part of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts that examines what’s broken in our democracy and how we can work together to fix it.


Further Reading:

From POGO:

Elsewhere on the web:

  • Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago-based collaboration that challenges the harms created by technology and works to expose surveillance overreach perpetrated by governments and corporations. 

[Music plays.]

Host Maren Machles: Last time on Bad Watchdog

POGO Senior Investigator Nick Schwellenbach: The tipster said that experts had extraordinarily damning findings.

Berto Hernandez: I’m caged here. Of course I feel trapped. I feel angry. I feel grief. I feel all of these things because you took my humanity away from me.

KPIX reporter: Detainees’ every move is controlled. They live in locked housing units and sleep four to a cell.

Nick Schwellenbach: These experts were not mincing their words. They used words like “shocking levels” of solitary confinement, “disturbing levels” of solitary confinement.

[Music out.]

POGO Senior Paralegal Lance Sims: I’ve been inside of courtrooms where the uh, clerk has fallen asleep. The judges said he wasn’t asleep, but I know what sleep looks like, sir.

Maren: Meet Lance Sims. He’s POGO’s senior paralegal. He works on everything from appeals to litigation. And he’s a charismatic FOIA nerd.

Lance Sims: Freedom of Information Act, uh, section 5 U.S.C. 552 for those who are following along with their Google, look up law machine. Uh, it was signed into law in 1966. So it’s been around for a very long time. 

Maren: That’s right. This season, I’m calling another one of my colleagues a nerd, which some might say is pretty mean, but to be fair, he’s earned the title and wears it proudly. 

Lance Sims: The original purpose of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, was to provide the public access to records from federal agencies. It shows how policies are created. It shows how procedures are carried out. It shows the actions, be they good or bad, of members of different agencies. 

Maren: If you remember last season, when we talked to Nick, a big part of his investigations into DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari was people coming forward with their stories, sharing documents, but that’s actually kind of a rare tool and can be risky for the people sharing information with Nick. FOIA lets us as journalists try to get the same information but directly through that agency. It’s how some of my biggest investigations have come about. It is one of the only ways to find out what’s happening to people being detained. So I’ll admit it, Lance isn’t the only FOIA nerd. FOIA’s frickin’ awesome!

Lance Sims: Absent having kind of a look behind the curtain, people are left only seeing the what, and the end results of an action, but never the why. The Freedom of Information Act allows journalists to provide and members of the public to provide and disclose the whys of information. It can be all kinds of information that leads you to understand why certain actions were taken, or why certain actions weren’t taken. The agencies are required to disclose any information that’s requested by a member of the public, unless it falls into one of nine exemptions.

Maren: In case you were wondering, of course Lance can rattle off all nine exemptions at the drop of a hat, and of course he did in this interview. But as much fun as it is to listen to Lance nerd out about FOIA, I should probably spare you. But also real quick.

Lance Sims: And my personal favorite that I have never had a chance to work in is exemption nine, which deals with geological and geophysical information like maps and wells. So, if Lara Croft or Indiana Jones ever want to contact POGO and file a FOIA request for something, uh, please, I would love to be a part of that because... wells.

Maren: So, Lance joined POGO in 2018 and the first legal complaint he worked on is over Nick’s FOIA seeking expert reports on Adelanto and other ICE detention facilities. As a reminder, these are reports where experts, contracted by DHS, go to a facility, like Adelanto, and investigate the conditions. Nick filed the FOIA in June of 2018, but by the end of August, which is way past the statutory deadline, we’d received no update on the status of the records besides just an initial acknowledgement. Often because of underfunding and understaffing in FOIA offices, there’s a huge backlog of requests. DHS ended Fiscal Year 2023 with a backlog of 63,883 requests.

Lance Sims: It is difficult to work with the same FOIA officer over the body of some of these longer requests, and things are constantly changing, there’s constant turnover. And that makes it difficult to kind of pinpoint someone to get this information, to get it accurately. 

Maren: This leads a lot of organizations to sue. 

Lance Sims: And oftentimes people’s only recourse to get on the FOIA processing calendar is to sue. When you sue, you’ll get a court to intervene and set a date by which things need to start moving along. You need to start processing things. It’s an expensive endeavor that doesn’t work for a lot of people.

Maren: Watchdog groups, news outlets, and members of the public often have to sue to make the federal government comply with FOIA, which is honestly messed up. But federal records are POGO’s bread and butter, so we kind of have no other choice. 

Lance Sims: So we’ve been able to sue to kind of speed up the timetable. That still doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a rapid turnaround.

[Music in.]

Maren: In August 2019, more than a year after suing DHS, Lance and Nick got three expert reports on the ICE detention center in Adelanto. This is what we talked about last episode. And these reports uncovered bone deformities, detainee deaths, disturbing use of solitary confinement. But if you remember, Nick asked for all reports from 2015 through 2018, not just the ones from Adelanto. Nick needed DHS to provide all of the reports he FOIA’d for. 

Here’s why: If this is what’s going on in Adelanto, what’s going on in the rest of these detention centers? Is Adelanto a one-off, or is it indicative of systemic issues? The only way to find out was to get their hands on the rest of these reports.

Lance Sims: So we get these super redacted reports for Adelanto, and we only got three. Yay that we got them, but there are dozens of facilities, if not more, that these reports should be coming from. So we know for each facility there should be a subject matter expert report from each of the subject matter experts over the course of the years that we’ve asked for these records. So to just get three was a good start, but it was nothing more than a good start. This CRCL case was filed in August of 2018, and the final resolution didn’t present itself until February of 2023. Um, and it was a long, a long and sarcastically “fun” process of back and forth and tugging and putting your foot down and drawing lines in the sand.

[Music out.]

Nick Schwellenbach: We had asked for a lot more reports beyond these three and CRCL like, wouldn’t give us any more reports. We had to fight for like four more years to get the other reports.

[Theme music plays.]

Maren: On this episode of Bad Watchdog, we’ll learn more about how DHS fought with POGO for years to keep reports documenting abuses and detention conditions in its own facilities out of the public eye. But in order to understand this FOIA battle, we need to look at the past. Even when DHS was first formed, there were debates in Congress about the power the agency would be granted to prevent and stop terrorism and about the public’s right to access information regarding how that power was used. 

This is a podcast about finding the truth and holding the powerful accountable. What happens to people who are thrown into the Department of Homeland Security’s detention facilities, with the presumption that they may be national security threats? This season, we dig into POGO’s exclusive investigations uncovering the agency’s treatment of people in detention — all justified in the name of homeland security, and all overshadowing the most dangerous threat: far-right violent extremists.

I’m Maren Machles and from the Project On Government Oversight, this is Bad Watchdog.

Episode 4: The Battle 

[Music out.]

Maren: If you remember earlier in this season, I talked about how DHS was created in response to 9/11. And I talked with César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at The Ohio State University and an expert on immigration policy, about how immigration detention became so intertwined with countering terrorism. And last episode, we heard from Berto and their experiences with this massive agency. Berto told us that after the formation of DHS, their community feared ICE, family members urged them to be careful and on the lookout, and every day it seemed like there was another incident of the abuse of people’s rights in these raids that were happening across the country. DHS became a more and more pervasive specter in their life until ultimately, they were taken to Adelanto, an ICE detention facility in California. And Berto described that experience as nearly breaking them.

But how did DHS get all this power? Did Congress foresee the impact this would have on people’s civil rights? How would this new agency, with a focus on homeland security, comply with the public’s right to transparency, to understanding how DHS was using the enormous power it was granted? We’re going back in time, to the debate in Congress around civil rights and the fight for secrecy around this new agency.   

News reporter: Oh my God. Look behind us. Please pan in this way. Please, be careful of your baby. This is it. [Spectator in the background: That’s the building coming down.] Oh my God. Oh, oh my God. No.

Then-President George W. Bush: Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward.

[Music plays.]

Maren: The September 11th attacks brought an overwhelming sense of fear that another attack was impending, and it could show up anywhere: Philly, Boise, Columbus...

News anchor: In many cities today, there were indications of our heightened anxiety. Bomb scares, police on the lookout, and on edge. 

Maren: And there was anger that this attack could happen on U.S. soil, killing thousands of people. 

News anchor: And we as a nation were still riveted to this. Sorting out in our own minds what to do. It is just now really sinking in. 

Maren: There was pressure on our political leaders not only to find these terrorists, but to ensure that something like this could never happen again. In the days that followed, lawmakers and politicians started searching for answers and solutions.

CNN anchor Bill Cress: Together with all the sorrow and the anger and the rage that we Americans feel about Tuesday’s terrorist attacks against this country, we also have a lot of questions about how something like this could happen and how we might respond. Tonight, we turn for answers to two United States senators. First, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from the state of Nebraska, and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, who’s chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Chuck Hagel (R-NE): We cherish our individual rights and liberties and conveniences, quite frankly. What we must find is a balance between preserving those individual liberties and the security of our institutions, our state, and our people.

Bob Graham (D-FL): I think clearly we are going to see, uh, and the airports will probably be one of the first places, uh, that we’re going to be living in this different, uh, era. I personally, will not, uh, question, uh, if they look a second or third time at my bag as it goes on the airplane. 

Maren: Ten days after the attack, then-President George W. Bush appointed then-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as the director of newly created Office of Homeland Security. This was the beginning of a push to establish a cabinet-level agency charged with fighting terrorism. About nine months later, Tom Ridge was sitting in front of Congress with a proposal on how to make that happen.

Tom Ridge: The creation of this department would transform the current rather confusing patchwork of government activities related to homeland security into a single department whose primary agency, primary focus, primary mission is protect Americans and our way of life. Preventing future terrorist attacks is our number one priority. Because terrorism is a global threat, we must have complete control over who and what enters the United States.

[Music out.]

Maren: Policymakers were under tremendous pressure to act with a big, bold reinvention to reassure an American public that feared another attack could come at any time. So they got to work envisioning how to streamline all aspects of homeland security into one single cabinet agency, taking offices from agriculture and transportation. It was an ambitious undertaking, and it would be the biggest restructuring of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1949.

But even in this initial hearing on what would eventually become the Homeland Security Act, you can hear some of the fundamental concerns that lawmakers have with this future department.

[Music in.]

Maren: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised red flags. A department of this size and scope posed risks. Here’s then-Representative John Duncan.

John Duncan (R-TN): I do, uh, hope that we will not rush into this and that we will do everything possible to make sure that we don’t create more problems than we solve and that we don’t grow government unnecessarily.

Maren: There were concerns about sweeping power to conduct surveillance and the potential for abuse of civil and human rights, particularly of minorities. Here’s then-Representative Elijah Cummings.

Elijah Cummings (D-MD): As we move forward on this massive undertaking, I am concerned about the possible abrogation of civil rights. In particular, I am concerned about how this new department may undermine the progress made in this country on ending racial profiling.

Maren: Then-Senator Patrick Leahy, who you heard in episode 1 inquiring about the Department of Homeland Security’s commitment to addressing the threat of white supremacy, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, and raised concerns about how domestic surveillance in this new department could lead to federal government overreach.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT): It’s more important than ever that there be strong protection to ensure such information is not gathered or used improperly. The American people want to be protected against terrorists. They also want to make sure they’re protected in the security of their own privacy from their own government. And that’s not a liberal or a conservative philosophy. That’s an American philosophy.

Maren: He also raised some of the fundamental concerns that lawmakers had about keeping this agency accountable to the people. The White House’s proposal stripped out or undermined several key tools for transparency and oversight.

Patrick Leahy: Now, here’s my concerns: The Freedom of Information Act would not apply, the new department head would have the power to suspend the Whistleblower Protection Act, and even to intervene in the independent investigations of the inspector general. 

Maren: Whistleblower protections, FOIA, inspectors general — these are all crucial components to maintaining an effective and accountable government agency, and all of them were at stake in the early stages of DHS. And the debate made very clear how this new agency saw itself, in the wake of a call to action to counter terrorism. 

Patrick Leahy: So, really what this does is put them above the law. That is very troubling to me, director. Um, we go on the assumption that everybody has to follow the law. The President, the Congress, the administration, and suddenly to put this agency above the law on the questions of conflicts of interest, of whistleblower and FOIA and all that, that’s, uh, that’s not a good signal to send.

[Music out.]

Maren: Leahy wasn’t the only person pushing back on these proposals. Here’s Senator Chuck Grassley, with his thoughts on the lack of whistleblower protections. These are protections for the people who risk their livelihood to report wrongdoing.

Chuck Grassley (R-IA): In all the years that I’ve done congressional oversight work, when I find someone who opposes whistleblower protection, it means that these people are more worried about being embarrassed than fixing problems. I think there’s a certain amount of arrogance about, uh, departments that think they have to be protected against whistleblowers. And I want an employee in Homeland Security to have exactly the same protection as somebody does in the Department of Justice or the Secretary of Defense. And, and so you’re willing to do that? 

Tom Ridge: We, we believe that the, those, uh, uh, protections are, are present, but we— 

Chuck Grassley: Well, the way to make it sure is to make sure the language is exactly the same. 

Tom Ridge: Okay. Senator, we’ll work with you on the language.

Chuck Grassley: Okay, well, uh, that clears that up...

Maren: One part of the plan that got a lot of scrutiny was the proposed exemption from FOIA. Here’s Tom Ridge explaining the reasoning for the proposed exemption.

Tom Ridge: Based on experiences in our outreach to the private sector, developing the national strategy, we found we are very reluctant and would be reluctant to share with the federal government proprietary information relating to the operation of their facility. It’s not the complete operation of the agency that’s been exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. But it is a limited exception drawn to encourage the private sector to share some information with us about potential vulnerabilities. We don’t want to give the terrorists a roadmap. We don’t want to expose those vulnerabilities to the terrorists and that’s the reason for the exemption.

Maren: But here is then-Representative Patsy Mink, quickly dispelling the need for this exemption. 

Patsy Mink (D-HI): I think that the Freedom of Information Act currently already sets forth at least a dozen areas for exemption, which the head of the agency can exercise. If a citizen asks for some documents and the agency head said this has to do with national security, there is an exemption. I would hate to see the Freedom of Information cast away merely because these departments have been transferred together under the Homeland Security uh, concept.

Maren: The Freedom of Information Act does have exemptions already, for both proprietary information and national security, so the consideration is actually kind of ridiculous, and as Senator Leahy said before, a signal that this new department is placing itself above the law. You can hear throughout this hearing the resounding dissent to the proposed exemption. Here’s then-Representative Cummings again. 

Elijah Cummings: Lastly, I am concerned about the provisions in the bill that would exempt the new agency from complying with the Freedom of Information Act,  as this exemption for an agency of this size threatens to begin an era of government secrecy, which I know the American people want to avoid.

Maren: And Representative Jan Schakowsky.

Jan Schakowsky (D-IL): We are talking about a new agency, a radical reorganization of the government, and a considerable amount of money. The public and the Congress should maintain their rightful oversight roles over this new agency, and attempts to limit those rights should immediately end.

[Music plays.]

Maren: On top of the potential for abuse of power, the fact that the White House wanted special exemptions from FOIA threatened the public’s ability to hold DHS accountable if these abuses did happen. 

Ultimately, the provisions were taken off the table, but this moment in the agency’s early foundation signals that from the jump, proponents of DHS wanted to limit how much transparency about its activities it would willingly provide to the public, almost as if it was anticipating the types of overreach and impunity that the agency would become known for in the decades ahead.

Lance Sims: There’s a level of responsibility and a level of power that these agencies have. The Department of Homeland Security, who have divisions that are very much wrought with issues around human and civil rights violations, either potentially, allegedly, or actually, and  until you can get that information, in this case through the Freedom of Information Act, you can’t make those connections and make those decisions. But when you do, you can start to paint the picture to understand what’s happening and why it’s happening. And then that can translate to people voting differently. People raising the alarms differently, people expending resources, be that time or money to address these issues that they feel are important to them and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Maren: The echoes of that debate back in 2001 still resonate in our work today. POGO currently has five lawsuits pending against DHS for failing to comply with FOIA. As of recording this episode, we are still in litigation with DHS over a FOIA filed in May of 2018. That’s six years.

[Music out.]

Maren: And that brings us back to the battle with DHS over the rest of these subject matter expert reports on conditions at ICE detention centers, and these are held by CRCL. Here’s Lance again. 

Lance Sims: I wasn’t expecting this case to drag on as long as it did. CRCL drug their feet at what seemed like every possible turn.

Maren: Explain that more.

Lance Sims: So the two requests that Nick asked for was complaint data maintained by CRCL from January 1st, 2015 through the present, which would have been June 2018. And his second request was for any records that memorialized the findings of CRCL investigations.

Maren: Lance says they were having so much trouble getting adequate data from the agency that by the end of 2019, POGO agreed to drop their request for the complaint database to focus just on getting the subject matter expert reports. 

Lance Sims: We just want to narrow the scope to expert reports. Can we just do that? And CRCL continue to produce portions of the spreadsheet. They continue to produce things that weren’t these subject matter expert reports. I said “Okay. Alright, cool.” February 2020. “Hey folks, just wanted to check in again and make sure that you heard us and read us and listened to us when we said that we just want these subject matter expert reports. It’s all we want.” And they continue to give us everything but that.

Maren: It’s funny because I can tell Lance is exasperated. 

Lance Sims: We all agreed months ago to just give us these subject matter expert reports. We don’t want anything from the spreadsheet. We just want these one thing. So CRCL said, “Oh, okay, got it. All you want is subject matter expert reports.” And the next two interim productions that we got, guess what we did not get? Subject matter expert reports. So at this point, you’re just slapping your head in cartoonish fashion and thinking, “Is it, is it me? Am I speaking the wrong language? Like, just, is my spell check broken?”

Maren: I’ve been spinning trying to come up with a good analogy to describe how frustrating this is. Here’s the closest I can come up with. So it’s voting day, you go to the polls to pick up your ballot but instead they hand you last year’s ballot. When you realize, you’re like, pft, well that was a silly mistake, and you hand it back to them and ask for your ballot again and they say “Sure!” and hand you a menu for the restaurant next door this time. And you ask again and they hand you instructions for filling out a ballot. It’s almost comical at this point, except there’s no way they don’t know that they gave you the wrong thing, and they’re actually denying you your right to vote. Except in this case that we’re talking about here, every one of these exchanges takes a good bit of time and effort. And every time we don’t get the right thing, we have to go back to DHS. That’s more time that passes, putting people’s well-being — people like Berto — putting their well-being and even their lives at risk.

[Music plays.] 

Maren: The court told DHS and POGO they need to come to the table again to clear up what must just be a misunderstanding.

Lance Sims: So we have a conversation with CRCL and they said, “Well, what do you mean by subject matter expert reports? Like what do you mean?” Now for those of you listening at home who have ever seen an episode of Scooby-Doo, when he said, “Aroo?” that’s what I felt and everybody on the team felt. We wrote a nice memo that explained exactly what these are, and we reminded them that subject matter expert report is not a term that we created. It is one that your agency created and used. We gave them links to their own website.

Maren: I just want to pause to reflect on the absurdity here. A federal agency in possession of these documents — documents, mind you, that they have already produced to POGO in smaller quantities — claims to not know what they are, and so Lance had to send them links to their own website.

Maren (in the interview): I mean the question itself is ridiculous because yeah, they had already given you these subject matter expert reports. I don’t understand why they’re asking now what that means. It just, it feels like disingenuous. 

Lance Sims: It, it absolutely, it absolutely was. Ask me if we got any more subject matter expert reports. Go ahead, ask, ask, ask. 

Maren (in the interview): Did you get any subject matter expert reports? 

Lance Sims: No, we did not. No, we did not. No more subject matter expert reports. We set a briefing schedule and the first motions for summary judgment was filed in June of 2022. 

[Music out.]

Maren: Remember, by this time, it had been four years since Nick filed his FOIA. Like babies had been conceived, born, and learned to walk in this time and we still don’t have these reports. Finally, in February 2023, Lance got the email with a final judgement from the court.

Lance Sims: It reminds me of when I was a kid  on Christmas morning. I couldn’t see the tree from the top of the steps. But once I went down maybe four or five steps, I can kind of see the edge of a present. And I can remember being scared to take that, that next step that, that I knew would put the gifts in my field of vision just in case. Now I thought I was a pretty good kid, but you know, you never knew. You never knew, there might’ve been some stuff that I thought I got away with that I didn’t. And so that’s kind of what it was when I was scrolling, like, “Oh, what’s gonna happen? Let’s see.” And the judge denied CRCL’s motion, they granted ours in part and denied it in part, and essentially we won.

[Music plays.]

Maren: Finally, the reports started rolling in, and it turns out there were 33 from facilities across the country, where the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties sent experts to investigate detention conditions.

Lance Sims: The whole point, the whole purpose of this exercise is to shed light on what we found to be bad actions and bad actors. within the Department of Homeland Security. We’re not trying to be aggressive and anti-government. We’re not trying to cause problems. What we’re trying to do is defend people who can’t necessarily defend themselves in a system that is not always clear, it’s not always easy to navigate, and it’s not always one that’s public. And to have the government fight tooth and nail to keep this information hidden is offensive. 

I hope that, uh, I’ll be able to come on a future episode and talk about something positive and say something nice about Homeland Security. 


Lance Sims: When I said it, I heard it. 

[Lance and Maren laugh.]

[Music out.]

Maren: So, it’s 2023, Nick finally has his hands on 33 reports from January 2015 through May of 2018. He’s anxious to start digging into these documents. But, in order to do that, he needs a little help. 

Maren (in the interview): Last season, people really only got to know a small section of the investigative team and you’re a new, uh, a new addition as far as the podcast goes, and so I would love for the people to know a little bit more about like who you are and your background, your subject matter expertise.

Then-POGO Senior Researcher Freddy Martinez: So my name is Freddie Martinez.  I’ve been doing investigations mostly around policing for about seven years now. Um, a lot of my work is focused on obtaining public records, uh, like using things like the Freedom of  Information Act and turning them into stories and really understanding how policing intersects with both technology, um, and First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Maren: This is Freddy, you’ll be hearing a lot more from him next episode. He was a senior researcher on our investigative team at the time. He’s now the executive director of Lucy Parsons Lab, a nonprofit he cofounded that fights for data transparency and law enforcement accountability. Freddy is also intimately familiar with suing law enforcement over public records. In 2014 and 2015, he sued the Chicago Police Department for dragging its feet to produce records confirming its purchase and use of a controversial phone surveillance tool. So needless to say, digging for information with notoriously secretive agencies is kind of Freddy’s thing.

Freddy Martinez: So when I first started looking through the records with Nick, what I began to notice is kind of the sort of surface level story that we’ve heard a lot about particular horrors at ICE detention centers, you know, things like malnourishment, the use of solitary confinement, things that I think a lot of us have heard of quite often. Um, but we took quite a bit of time to, to continue to synthesize what the records were really telling us. And you know, after reading them two or three times, what kind of emerged was this national story that these kinds of abuses aren’t located at one specific facility or that they’re not sort of one particular type.

Maren: Freddy and Nick began to see that this wasn’t just individual complaints or problems at individual facilities. What they were starting to uncover could be an indictment of the entire system.

Freddy Martinez: There was a couple of big untold stories in how DHS was asleep at the wheel, um, in providing oversight at ICE facilities. And we spent a couple of months, uh, really digging into what the records told us, um, and the sort of systemic patterns that they revealed. It’s a good example of sometimes how government agencies have sort of records that they compile in their day to day operations, but no one really ever takes the care to look at them, and when you start to look at them, you really see some kind of fundamental truths.

Maren: Next on Bad Watchdog...

Freddy Martinez: A lot of these issues tend to bleed together in very unique ways that are hard to sort of detangle from each other.

Maren: We finally uncover what’s in these reports. 

Freddy Martinez: People unable to access interpreters, lawyers. People were being asked to sign legal paperwork that they don’t understand. 

Maren: And we hear more from people who have been held inside these facilities. 

Arely Westley: My doctor had to keep calling the detention center and pushing them through to give me my medication. I’m scared to be in a space that’s quiet because everything remind me about the cell that I was with.

Maren: And those on the outside working to make the system more humane. 

Senior Legal Analyst for The Constitution Project at POGO Katherine Hawkins:  I’m not that confident that even if Adelanto closed, there’s not another equally bad facility that we don’t know about conditions in yet.

Maren: Bad Watchdog is a production of Investigations and Research at the Project On Government Oversight. It’s co-written and produced by Padmini Raghunath and me, Maren Machles, and based on investigations by Nick Schwellenbach, Freddy Martinez, Mia Steinle, Andrea Petersen, and Katherine Hawkins. Additional research by Julienne McClure. Edited by Julia Delacroix, Brandon Brockmyer, and Henry Glifort. Fact checking by Amaya Phillips. This episode was mixed by me. This episode was mastered by Verenda Lowe. Our theme music was written and recorded by Will Wrigley. POGO’s director of Investigations and Research is Brandon Brockmyer. POGO’s editorial director is Julia Delacroix. Find out more about our work to investigate and improve the federal government at     

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This podcast is part of The Democracy Group.