Trump Administration Skews Terror Data to Justify Anti-Muslim Travel Ban

A new report from the DOJ and DHS appears to understate non-Muslims and U.S. citizens in the latest count of international terror defendants.

Arriving international travelers cross a police line separating pro- and anti-demonstrators of a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle that grants a nationwide temporary restraining order against the presidential order to ban travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on February 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

A new report from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security found that three of every four defendants convicted of international terrorism charges from September 11, 2001 to December 31, 2016 were born outside the United States. President Donald Trump mandated the creation of the report as part of the same executive order that instituted the second iteration of the so-called Muslim ban.

The data in the report, released today, would appear to support Trump’s policies of limiting immigration from Muslim-majority nations out of national security concerns. However, the report appears to rely on a dataset that has been carefully selected to support the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim policies.

“This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality — our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the report’s release. “And the information in this report is only the tip of the iceberg: We currently have terrorism-related investigations against thousands of people in the United States, including hundreds of people who came here as refugees.”

The report found that of 549 defendants prosecuted for international terrorism from September 11, 2001, to December 31, 2016, 402 were born outside the United States — suggesting the threat of international terrorism is disproportionately greater among those born outside the country. The report said the 549 defendants come from “a list maintained by DOJ’s National Security Division.”

But there’s a curious problem with the number of defendants — 549 — on whom the report’s conclusions are based.

The DOJ list that is referenced in the new report is well-known among national security journalists and researchers because it has been released periodically over the years. In March 2010, then-Attorney General Eric Holder presented it to Congress as part of testimony. The list then included 403 defendants. A second version, updated through December 31, 2014, had 580 defendants. A third list ending in 2015 included 627 international terrorism defendants.

Yet somehow a list of defendants ending December 31, 2016, cited in this new report, has just 549 defendants. The report does not provide the raw data or any further description of the data used; it does not explain how a list that contained 627 names in 2015 and 580 names in 2014 now includes far fewer, 549. Devin O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesperson assigned to answer questions about the report, declined to comment about the mysteriously shrinking defendant list.

It appears that Sessions’s Justice Department has edited the data to support the conclusions the president wanted — that foreign-born individuals are the principal problem. The new report shows that of the 549 international terrorism defendants the Trump administration includes in its new list, 254 were not U.S. citizens, 148 were born outside the country and received U.S. citizenship, and 147 were U.S. citizens by birth.

This isn’t the first time that Sessions has been part of an effort to show that individuals who are born in foreign countries pose a disproportionate terrorism risk compared to U.S. citizens who were born here. In 2015, then-Senator Sessions requested the Justice Department list of international terrorism defendants and assigned the staff of the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, which he chaired at the time, to research the country of origin and immigration status of each defendant. The list Sessions’s staff worked with was the 2014 one with 580 defendants.

Sessions’s efforts back then showed that country of origin is a poor predictor of terrorist threat. Of the 580 defendants on that list, 375 were born outside the United States, according to the research of Sessions’s staff. But more defendants on the list were from the United States than from any other country, Sessions’s staff discovered.

Unlike Sessions’s previous project, the new report from the Justice and Homeland Security departments does not provide key details about its data, such as the number of international terrorism defendants from specific countries. Instead, the agencies cherry-picked eight “illustrative examples” of defendants from the data. Seven of the eight chosen were from Muslim-majority nations. However, the report does not mention that previous iterations of the government’s international terrorism defendant list have included significant numbers from non-Muslim countries, including most notably Colombia, which in the data Sessions analyzed as a senator had more defendants than Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Colombia is home to the paramilitary group FARC, a designated terrorist organization.

The new report concludes by noting that the Justice and Homeland Security departments “will continue to report appropriate information regarding terrorism-related activity, as well as other information as directed under the President’s Executive Order, in an effort to highlight the threats facing the United States, trends, and relevant U.S. Government actions.” But nothing in the report addresses the threat of domestic terrorists and how many of those terrorists were natural-born U.S. citizens. In a practice that predates the Trump administration, the Justice Department does not maintain a central list of domestic terrorism defendants, as it does for those prosecuted for international terrorism.

The Intercept maintains a database of international terrorism defendants. The database’s sources include the previously released defendant lists from the Justice Department and announcements from the National Security Division. To date, the Justice Department has designated 834 people as international terrorism defendants.

Top photo: Arriving international travelers cross a police line separating rival demonstrations over a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle that granted a nationwide temporary restraining order against a presidential order to ban travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 4, 2017.

Join The Conversation