A new letter from the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that President Donald Trump either fabricated or embellished claims about foreign-born terrorists that he attributed to the DOJ. The letter was a response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from Lawfare Blog editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes that sought to find out the truth behind these claims.
It all stems from an address Trump made before Congress back in February 2017, where he stated, “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.”
Trying to confirm whether or not there was truly Justice Department data to back this up, Wittes requested–and then sued for–records “relating to the nationality or country of origin of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses,” any communication between the DOJ and the White House regarding this, and communications related to Trump’s preparation for that February 2017 address.
All he got in return was data from the National Security Division that the NSD acknowledged didn’t “include convictions related solely to domestic terrorism,” and could not be relied upon to determine where a defendant was born. Looking to get a more complete set of records that from the whole Justice Department instead of just the NSD, and that included domestic terror cases, Wittes and the DOJ agreed that the government would search “for records containing data of (i) all individuals convicted of all terrorism-related offenses (domestic and international) between 2001 and the date of the initial search, or (ii) all individuals convicted of all domestic terrorism-related offenses between 2001 and the date of the initial search.”
The DOJ responded in a letter to Wittes that stated “no responsive records were located.”
So while Trump said that the Justice Department provided data about convicted terrorists, the Department is saying that they don’t even that data. It should be noted that there is no statute on the books establishing the crime of “domestic terror” even though there is a statute that defines it (that’s why Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was convicted of federal hate crime and murder charges, but not terrorism). Still, the fact that the DOJ did not have records to address “all individuals convicted of all terrorism-related offenses” during the given time period is enough to undermine Trump’s claim.
Wittes’ summation of why the DOJ’s search didn’t turn up any records was, “Because what the president of the United States said before a joint session of Congress was not true. It wasn’t true about immigrants and terrorism. And neither was it true about the Justice Department.”
Now, Wittes acknowledged in a Lawfare Blog post that Trump’s claim (which he echoed in a January 2018 tweet) may have relied on NSD data about international terrorists, but even that data doesn’t really support Trump. Wittes referred to previous Lawfare reports that looked at a public list of international terror cases.
“Of the 455 persons, 132 are U.S.-born and 323 were born abroad,” one of the reports said. “So yes, since 2001, a substantial majority of terrorist defendants have been born abroad.” But the reporting showed that these statistics are misleading because 100 of those foreign-born defendants only entered the U.S. when they were extradited for prosecution.
That means that if Trump was referring to them when he discussed those who “came here from outside of our country,” that’s not really a fair description because it implies that they came here to commit acts of terror, which wasn’t the case. If you subtract those 100, then the NSD data no longer supports Trump’s claim. The data also refers to defendants in general, not just those who were convicted, which provides even less support for the idea that the “vast majority” of terror convicts entered the U.S. from other countries.
[Image via Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images]