A group of former national security officials is urging the Trump administration to reconsider a controversial report on the connection between terrorism and immigration, saying the report falsely gives the impression that immigrants are responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks in the United States.
The officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former White House terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke made the call in a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
“Overall, the report appears designed to give the misleading impression that immigrants — and even their citizen family members — are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States, whereas statistical studies and our experience have shown no identifiable correlation between ‘foreignness’ and terrorist activity in the past 15 years,” the 18 former officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations wrote.
Report linked to travel ban
At issue is a report released in January by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that said three in four individuals convicted of international terrorism-related charges since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were foreign born.
President Donald Trump ordered the report when he issued an executive order in March 2017 imposing a travel ban on citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries. Trump asked for the compilation of data on “foreign nationals” in the United States who have been charged with terror-related offenses in the United States.
The Jan. 16 report instead focused on “foreign born” terrorism defendants, a broader category that included naturalized U.S. citizens as well as foreign terror suspects extradited to the United States for prosecution on crimes committed overseas. It showed that 402 of 549 individuals convicted of terrorism charges in the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were foreign born.
Critics: Threat exaggerated
Critics blasted the report for exaggerating the threat of terrorism posed by foreigners, saying had the report followed the president’s order, it would have shown that fewer than half of individuals convicted of terrorism were foreign nationals. They also criticized the report for leaving out domestic terrorism cases, which are responsible for the vast majority of acts of terror committed in the United States.
“What we’ve seen come out of the Department of Homeland Security has been patently false and misleading,” Matt Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told VOA.
“Not only is that wrong on its terms but it also undermines our counterterrorism and national security efforts because it provides a misleading picture of the people who are really responsible for terror,” said Olsen, who was among the officials who signed the letter. “The focus needs to be on people who are here who are being radicalized, not the country that they were born in.”
Information Quality Act
The report triggered formal complaints by three rights organizations. Muslim Advocates, Protect Democracy and the Brennan Center for Justice first petitioned the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to correct or retract the report and later sued the agencies for violating the Information Quality Act, a little-tested law that requires government reports to meet standards of “utility, objectivity, and integrity.”
“Responding to a request for information that purports to be about the terrorist threat that foreign national immigrants pose to the United States by disseminating information that includes naturalized citizens perpetuates the administration’s discriminatory view that only native-born individuals are actually American, and results in numbers that are artificially inflated,” Muslim Advocates said in its lawsuit. “As such, in substituting foreign-born for foreign national, Defendants disseminated information that does not have utility and is not objective.”
In letters sent to the two groups in July and August, Justice and Homeland Security officials stood by the report, denying the request for a correction or retraction and saying it had concluded that the report did not violate the Information Quality Act.
The rights’ groups appealed the agency decisions Thursday, drawing support from the former security officials. Calling the report “misleading,” the former officials urged DHS and DOJ “to reconsider their responses to the concerns” about the report.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.
Homeland security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said via email: “We cannot view counterterrorism through a pre-9/11 lens. The Department of Homeland Security uses historical data to inform its approach, but if we only look at what terrorists have done in the past, we will never be able to prevent future attacks. That is why, in addition to analyzing past terrorism activity, DHS is focused on anticipating terrorist trends and movements and, more importantly, blocking all terrorist pathways into the United States — whether it’s online or on an airplane.”
Another rejection expected
Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, said the agencies will likely reject their requests again.
“We hope that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will take another look at these reports and will correct or retract them,” Shebaya said. “What’s more likely to happen is that we’re going to wait for their response, their response is going to be unsatisfactory, and we’re going to go back to court to fight this out.”
VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.