The document didn’t mince words. It claimed three-quarters of “international terrorism” convicts were immigrants, an assertion meant to bolster Donald Trump’s cherished Muslim-focused ban on entering the country. And the report put the claim in the mouths of an agency assembled to keep Americans safe after 9/11: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Working off the 549 federal international-terrorism convictions tallied by the Justice Department, the document stated: “An analysis conducted by DHS determined that approximately 73 percent (402 of these 549 individuals) were foreign-born.”
But the Department of Homeland Security did not perform that analysis. DHS’ analysts did not contribute to the highly controversial report, The Daily Beast has learned.
According to a government source familiar with the episode, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office took charge of the report’s assemblage of statistics—which some terrorism analysts consider highly misleading—and sent it to DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen for her imprimatur after it was all but finalized.
“The Trump administration is trying to turn counterterrorism into an immigration issue,” said Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, where he tracks Muslim-American involvement in terrorism.
Career professional analysts at DHS communicated to the Justice Department that the data sought for the report simply did not exist within their department. DHS, multiple sources said, does not track or correlate international terrorism data by citizenship or country of origin, and have warned the Trump administration that doing so risks a misleading portrait of both terrorism and immigration.
The result was that the document released last week did not include the contributions of those career DHS officials tasked with providing professional and objective analysis. They were not asked to participate, and so the document did not reflect their input. The Justice Department took the lead on the report, as its public rollout indicated, complete with a senior Justice official conducting a White House press briefing.
To some within DHS, The Daily Beast has learned, the perception is that the Trump administration used the Department to conflate immigrants with terrorists in support of the president’s signature immigration crackdown.
“This kind of bureaucratic manipulation of what should be objective, professional analysis is what undermines confidence in these institutions,” said Michael German, a former FBI special agent now with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
A Justice Department official told The Daily Beast: “All essential components from DOJ and DHS contributed to the production of the Section 11 Report.”
After the story published, a Homeland Security official said in a statement that the story is “categorically false” and that DHS “worked jointly with DOJ for months” on the report. “For those of us who were actually involved, this story is as bizarre as it is fictional,” Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
The report, issued Tuesday, flowed out of Trump’s March executive order authorizing a modified version of the travel ban. But its story began earlier.
Trump’s first travel ban, enacted in late January 2017, directed DHS, “in consultation with the attorney general,” to release data on immigration and terrorism. That included “the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses while in the United States” as well as those “convicted of terrorism-related offenses while in the United States” and removed from the U.S. for terrorism “or any other national security reasons.”
A month later, a DHS draft analysis was leaked to the Associated Press. That document criticized the methodology and implication of the travel ban. It noted that few people from the original seven countries covered by the travel ban were involved in terrorism on U.S. soil. And it was titled “Citizenship Likely an Unreliable Indicator of Terrorist Threat to the United States.”
While DHS’ analysts keep track of domestic terrorism data and immigration data, they do not cross-reference that data by citizenship.
“DHS does not keep [those] kind of stats, make these reports, or track this information. That’s solely in the purview of the [Justice Department],” a former senior DHS official said.
A second former DHS official confirmed that.
“You’re asking for information that isn’t tracked by DHS in that way. It’s almost as if DOJ would have to identify immigration convictions for terrorism things and then go to DHS to say, ‘Run this name and date of birth through your system and tell us this person’s immigration status,” this ex-DHS official told The Daily Beast.
Then, on March 2, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow published a different DHS analysis that went further. Most foreign-born terrorists who came to the U.S. “likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States,” it found, “limiting the ability of screening and vetting officials to prevent their radicalization.” It referenced another as-yet-undisclosed DHS analysis of recent foreign-born terrorists that found they “began radicalizing, on average, 13 years after their entry to the United States.” The implication, undermining the rationale for the so-called Muslim ban, is that immigrants don’t come to the United States to commit terrorism; most of those who become terrorists do so long after they become Americans.
Nevertheless, the next version of the ban, issued four days later, also mandated public release of the same immigration-tied terrorism data as the January iteration required. Its 11th section once again charged “the Secretary of Homeland Security” with the data disclosure, “in consultation with the Attorney General.”
DHS, according to the government source, communicated through the interagency channels set out out in the executive order that it doesn’t keep the data the order sought. Accordingly, some within DHS considered the data request inappropriate, and an indication the administration was laundering a misleading report through the department’s reputation. The lack of the requested data and the internal discomfort about assembling it anyway were among the reasons why the report came months later than the September deadline specified in the executive order.
Ultimately, the government source said, DHS’ analysts did not contribute anything of substance, and the Justice Department took charge. It was a longstanding preoccupation of Attorney General Sessions. As a senator, Sessions had taken to publishing charts tracking the immigration status of people charged with terrorism offenses.
Yet the FBI, which also aggressively tracks terrorism data—it administers the Terrorist Screening Center, which oversees the various terrorism watchlists – also did not play a substantial role in preparing the report, The Daily Beast has learned. An FBI spokesman referred comment to DHS and the Justice Department.
The major extent of DHS’ involvement in the report, according to the source, was Secretary Nielsen’s sign-off, shortly before its public release.
“This report is a clear reminder of why we cannot continue to rely on immigration policy based on pre-9/11 thinking that leaves us woefully vulnerable to foreign-born terrorists, and why we must examine our visa laws and continue to intensify screening and vetting of individuals traveling to the United States to prevent terrorists, criminals, and other dangerous individuals from reaching our country,” Nielsen said in a Tuesday statement.
Sessions has been trying to get back into Trump’s good graces after recusing himself from the Russia inquiry, which has prompted Trump to grow so irate with Sessions that the attorney general offered to resign. Shortly after the release of the report, Sessions said it highlighted the “ indisputable sobering reality” that “our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”
Trump seemed to approve. “New report from DOJ & DHS shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born,” he tweeted the day of the report’s release—conspicuously omitting that the report only covered international terrorism, and had by design omitted domestic terrorism. He continued: “We need to keep America safe, including moving away from a random chain migration and lottery system, to one that is merit-based.”
His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the report “highlights the urgent need for Congress to adopt the immigration reforms identified in the administration’s priorities.” She was accompanied at the podium by a senior Justice Department official, Ed O’Callaghan.
Almost immediately afterward, other terrorism studies came to starkly different conclusions about terrorism in the U.S. and immigration.
On Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League released its own analysis of terrorism inside the U.S. in 2017. Though its scope was different than the administration’s, the ADL found that 59 percent of extremist-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017 were caused by white supremacists and far-right extremists.
Then, on Thursday, Kurzman, the North Carolina professor, published his annual index of Muslim-American involvement in terrorism. (PDF) Like the ADL report, its focus is different than the Justice-DHS offering. But it found “no attacks in 2017 by Muslim-American extremists with family backgrounds in travel-ban countries.” Since 9/11, terrorists from ban countries “have caused zero fatalities and 32 injuries” domestically. For good measure, Kurzman’s report noted, “almost twice as many people were killed in the United States by mass shootings in 2017 as have been killed by Muslim-American extremists in the past 16 years.”
Though the Justice-DHS report was an outgrowth of the travel ban, it notably did not associate its purported 73 percent of foreign-born terrorism convictions with travel-ban countries—an omission Kurzman believes occurred because “it would show there’s very little violence from folks from the travel-ban countries.”
But a larger omission in the report intrigues Kurzman: domestic terrorism.
According to data referenced by federal prosecutors around the country, there have been approximately 1,400 cases of domestic terrorism prosecuted since 9/11, a total more than twice the 549 cases of international terrorism that the Justice-DHS report examined. Since the data format excludes relevant information like case docket numbers, Kurzman and the Brennan Center have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the missing domestic-terrorism information. If successful, they seek to use this much larger data set to determine, among other things, a more comprehensive picture of the relationship between terrorism and immigration.
Chances are, the professional analysts at DHS could tell them that.
“Here’s a government report focused just on Muslim terrorism and demonizing that threat and ignoring the facts that white terrorists killed more people in 2017 than Muslim terrorists,” said Daryl Johnson—a former professional DHS terrorism analyst.
“It’s strictly focused on trying to implicate Muslim immigration and terrorism and hype up the threat.”
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff