The Trump administration has admitted that a report from last year that linked terrorism to immigration was badly flawed. But the episode is the latest to underscore how our approach to fighting terror over-hypes terrorism involving Muslim perpetrators while downplaying domestic terror committed by far-right militants, even though the latter is more common and more deadly.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) acknowledged last week that the January 2018 report, which was co-authored with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), contained bad data and misleading assertions, and suffered from a lack of objectivity. But DOJ’s mea culpa falls short of effectively addressing the problem because it doesn't correct or retract the study, which is still available to the public and perpetuates the government’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.
Shortly after the report was issued, the Brennan Center and other groups sued DOJ and DHS under the Information Quality Act, requesting a retraction or correction of the report.
DOJ’s report cherry-picks terrorism statistics to push a xenophobic agenda while ignoring a bigger threat
A central claim of the DHS-DOJ report is that 402 of 549 individuals — or nearly 3 in 4 — convicted of international terrorism charges since September 11, 2011 were foreigners or immigrants. President Trump soon promoted the statistic in a tweet and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions referenced the report in a speech.
The report’s authors have cherry-picked their data and failed to consider the broader context of terror threats in the United States.
But the report’s authors have cherry-picked their data and failed to consider the broader context of terror threats in the United States. The report makes the circular argument that the majority of international terror incidents have been committed by foreigners or immigrants—while ignoring domestic terror incidents. By focusing primarily on Muslims and immigrants, the Trump administration is advancing a nativist agenda while ignoring the full complexity of terror threats in the United States—in particular, the real and persistent threat of far-right extremism.
DOJ’s flawed report reflects a bigger problem with its approach to counterterrorism
The problems with the report are symptomatic of a bigger, ongoing problem with how the Justice Department analyzes and responds to terrorism.
An October 2018 report by the Brennan Center found that, relative to “international” terrorist acts committed by Muslims, the Justice Department has severely under-emphasized domestic terrorism as a national security threat, sometimes even categorizing it as “hate crimes” or “civil rights violations,” rather than terrorism at all. That's even though violence from the far-right has actually accounted for 73 percent of deadly attacks in the United States since September 12, 2001, according to a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
And while some at DOJ have said they'd need expanded legal authority to go after domestic terrorism, the Brennan Center report found that, in fact, law enforcement could effectively investigate and prosecute acts of domestic terror under existing statutes. Rather, the problem is that the government subordinates domestic terrorism in policy and doesn't collect enough information about far-right violence.
“Congress needs to tell the DOJ to collect better data about violence from far-right groups,” said Mike German, a fellow with the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, and a co-author of the report. “That way, the government can better distribute its law enforcement resources toward meeting actual threats.”
The Justice Department needs to correct or retract the DHS-DOJ terrorism report because it is both methodologically flawed and tied to a xenophobic agenda. But the report is just one part of a broader issue — the Federal government's outsized focus on terrorism committed by Muslims, combined with its failure to devote sufficient attention to combating far-right terrorism.
“Not only is the government’s report on terrorism flawed, so are the policies it seeks to justify,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center. “This administration has repeatedly vilified Muslims and immigrants in an attempt to bolster its draconian immigration policies and this report is just another example of the lack of genuine national security concerns supporting its approach.”