Administration can’t claim transparency on latest terrorism report


This week, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released a report on terrorism-related crimes by foreign-born individuals, with a tweet from DOJ that seemed designed to arouse fear of immigrants. The report, which was required by President Trump’s March 6, 2017 executive order on immigration, includes statistics – incomplete and devoid of context – manipulated to support policies that would make immigration to the United States more difficult. Contrary to its stated goal of serving “transparency and accountability,” the report instead weaponizes data to target the vulnerable.

When President Trump issued Executive Order 13780 last March, Open The Government and a coalition of organizations opposed the Order’s data collection and publication requirements, instead calling for government data to be released in a “complete, consistent, unbiased, and open manner.” As we mentioned in the letter, the Office of Management and Budget requires that agencies present data in an open format, including relevant methodologies and an avenue for the public to offer corrections.

The resulting report has confirmed our fears, presenting biased and incomplete statistics designed to target immigrants and foreign nationals residing in the United States. For example, the report states that three out of every four individuals convicted of international terrorism-related charges between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2016 were foreign-born. This statistic fails to examine any crimes related to domestic terrorism, giving the public a skewed picture of terrorism in the United States. The Cato Institute’s examination of terrorism data in the US, for example, shows that when domestic and international terrorism data are studied together, it’s clear that there are far more domestic terror attacks and resulting deaths than international terror attacks. The DOJ/DHS report also lists several examples of individuals convicted of international terror charges, all of them representing the foreign-born culprits with not a single example of the more than 25% who were born in the United States.

The report’s use of “international terrorism-related” convictions as a metric is also deeply problematic, considering this category is defined as including “offenses such as those involving fraud, immigration, firearms, drugs, false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice, as well as general conspiracy charges.” Clearly, many of these offenses likely have little relation to actual terror attacks. Also included in the Order and resulting report, inexplicably, is an examination of “so-called honor killings.” The report freely admits that the federal government does not have any comprehensive means of tracking such crimes, nor does it attempt to offer any justification for the inclusion of this section in an Executive Order and report ostensibly dedicated to combating terrorism.

Why are DOJ and DHS presenting data to the public in this way? The motivation becomes clear in reading Attorney General Sessions’ statement accompanying the release of the report:

“This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality—our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety, 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.”

Here, Sessions not only draws conclusions impossible to make from the context-devoid statistics presented in the report, he also references data on terrorism-related investigations that is not available to the public at all, much less included in the report he is discussing.

Efforts to more comprehensively collect data on gender-based violence across the country and by all perpetrators, not merely those who are foreign-born, would be a welcome step toward greater transparency. The public would also surely benefit from government reporting on terrorism, both international and domestic. True transparency allows the public to examine government information and make informed decisions on government policies and programs – and hold public officials accountable when those policies and programs are not serving the public interest. For example, publicly releasing the Inspector General report that DHS is currently hiding from public view would allow the public to evaluate the agency’s implementation of the Muslim Ban.

The data presented in today’s report, however, does not make such informed evaluations possible. Instead, DOJ and DHS manipulated data (most of which the public does not have access to) to support a stated policy goal, giving the public an inaccurate view of the national security and public safety threats facing the United States. The report should be withdrawn, and future reports should present data in a more comprehensive, open, and unbiased manner, free of unsupported political rhetoric.