Terrorism is not a thing to cry wolf about

In the manic push for a border wall, some officials in the Trump administration have cried wolf about the number of terrorists caught trying to enter the United States. Terrorism is a serious threat and should not be trotted out to justify an unpopular policy proposal. It is a false alarm that, as the ancient story of the shepherd boy who cried wolf teaches, results in no one believing the cry when the wolf eventually does come to eat the sheep.

On Jan. 4, 2019, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists were picked up trying to cross the southern border last year. She made the remarks in anticipation of President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE’s meeting with congressional leaders on funding the government and his request for $5 billion for a border wall. When Fox News’ Chris Wallace challenged these claims of thousands of terrorists attempting entry that Sanders and Department of Homeland (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' MORE have made, Sanders refused to correct the record, alleging that the southern border is the “most vulnerable point of entry.”


Obfuscation, misrepresentation and falsification of immigration statistics has become commonplace in the Trump administration, the most glaring of which is the 2018 report that the Department of Justice (DOJ) co-authored with DHS. Eighteen former national security experts who had worked at the highest levels in several administrations wrote a letter severely critiquing the report. They identified a number of mischaracterizations in the report and sought its rescission under the Information Quality Act (IQA).

In doing so, the national security experts emphasized the damage such a misleading report inflicts on counterterrorism efforts. They concluded: “Terrorists’' success or failure in spreading fear and provoking self-inflicted overreactions hinges, in significant part, on how the public understands the actual threat that terrorists pose. DOJ’s and DHS’s Report distorts that threat in ways that run contrary not only to the IQA but also to sound, responsible approaches to counterterrorism.” Although DOJ has acknowledged errors in the 2018 report, officials in the Trump administration refuse to correct the record and continue to the muddy and distort the research.

In fact, most of the suspected terrorists or suspicious foreign nationals are detected abroad and intercepted before they set foot on American soil or when they attempt to enter at a port of entry. Improvements in intelligence gathering and sharing, along with advances in technologies, have greatly enhanced the rigor of visa screening abroad. State Department consular officers use biometric and biographic databases to screen all foreign nationals seeking visas. They also use facial recognition technology to screen applicants against photographs of known and suspected terrorists obtained from the Terrorist Screening Center. Consular officials partner with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to utilize the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment on known and suspected terrorists and terrorist groups.

National security screenings do not end with consular visa processing. As I have written, commercial airlines are required to make passenger name record data available to DHS Customs and Border Protection (CBP) up to 72 hours in advance of travel. Biographic traveler data is submitted to the Advance Passenger Information System. Passenger data are forwarded to CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC), where they once again are vetted against intelligence and law enforcement databases. Finally, CBP inspectors examine and verify U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who seek admission to the United States at all ports of entry, linking with the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment on known and suspected terrorists and terrorist groups.

With such a rigorous and extensive web of national security screenings conducted on millions of foreign travelers, it is credible that the United States had almost 4,000 “hits” of suspicious individuals, including more than a few false-positive “hits” on people with similar names. What is not credible is the claim that 4,000 known or suspected terrorists attempted to cross the southern border.

The latest reporting on actual statistics presents a sharply different picture than the one drawn by Nielsen and Sanders. Julia Ainsley of NBC reports, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U.S-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists.” Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center from December 2014 through December 2017, characterized the threat of terrorists crossing the southern border as more of a “theoretical vulnerability than an actual one.”

If anything, Trump’s border wall would divert needed resources away from stymieing terrorist travel at land ports of entry. Terrorists are not likely to trek through the desolate lands along the southern border if our ports of entry are overburdened, understaffed and lacking in the latest technologies.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.