Justice Department Refuses to Correct a Highly Misleading Report Linking Immigration with Terrorism

Published Mar 1, 2019

DOJ officials have refused to retract a report that contained misleading errors, which implied a link between terrorism and immigration.

What happened: The Department of Justice (DOJ) admitted that a report the agency issued – which implied a link between terrorism committed on US soil and immigration – contained errors in the data. DOJ officials have refused to retract or correct the report.

Why it matters: Critics describe the errors as highly misleading, presented without context, and seem to support a politically-motivated conclusion. By refusing to issue a correction or a retraction, the DOJ is saying that misleading data that supports the political climate is preferable to objective science. The cherry picking of data to yield results that mislead the public not only paints a dishonest picture of an entire group of people in the US, but also calls into question the scientific integrity of the officials involved with this report.

A January 2018 report that was a collaborative effort between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used data to portray misleading results that fit with the Trump administration’s political agenda to oppose immigration. The misleading results of the report back up an unfounded statement from President Trump’s 2017 State of the Union Address that falsely claimed that there was DOJ data showing that “the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.” Such an action is an affront to the use of science in decision making. In science, when important errors have been made in a published work, there is a specific process for dealing with this situation. If the central claim or result of the published work still stands, a corrigendum (i.e. a correction) is published that alerts others to the inaccuracies in the original paper. If the errors fully undermine the principal message of the paper, then a retraction of the paper is required, even if the paper still contains some valid scientific information.

The DOJ/DHS report contains numerous errors and misrepresented data that biases the report towards a position that implies a link between foreign-born immigrants and acts of domestic terrorism. One flaw is the report’s false claim that immigrants were convicted of 69,929 sex offenses between 2003 and 2009. In reality, the 69,929 data point spanned a period from 1955 to 2010 — 55 years, not six years; the data covered arrests, not convictions; and one arrest could be for multiple offenses. The DOJ later acknowledged these errors but called it "mere editorial errors" which "does not obligate the agencies to withdraw or correct” the report.

Another misleading flaw is the inclusion of eight “illustrative examples” cherry picked from 402 cases of foreign-born individuals who committed acts of terrorism, six of which were admitted as family members of legal residents or US citizens. The group Protect Democracy say that this misrepresentation can be used to portray so-called “chain migration” in a more threatening light. The DOJ later conceded that this flaw “could cause readers of the report to question its objectivity” but the agency reaffirmed its final decision to not correct or retract the report.

Two other errors were present in the report. One of the errors ties directly into the major finding of the report – that of the 549 people charged with acts of international terrorism in US federal courts since September 11, 2001, 402 were identified as being foreign-born individuals. However, when looking at the original DOJ data, those numbers don’t add up. First, the DOJ data show that not all of these 549 people were charged with an act of international terrorism – in fact, 189 of the 549 people were not convicted of terrorism-related crimes but were simply caught up in an investigation that had some link to terrorism. So, the claim that 549 people were charged with acts of international terrorism is erroneous. Second, it is not certain how many of the 189 were foreign-born. A correction to these numbers would change the report’s statistic on how many acts of terrorism are committed by foreign-born individuals considerably.

The report also falsely implies that many individuals were immigrants when they were extradited to the US to stand trial only. The report includes data on about 100 foreign-born individuals who were extradited to the United States to stand trial for terrorism-related crimes committed overseas; however, the report fails to clarify how the individuals were brought to the country. This gives a misleading impression that these individuals came to the US as immigrants.

In May 2018, several government watchdog and civil liberty groups sued the DOJ and DHS over these errors. After several months of federal court proceedings, the DOJ sent a letter to the affected parties in December 2018, admitting that “the report could be criticized by some readers, consistent with some of the concerns presented.” However, the DOJ stated that it was “declining to retract or correct the report” though “in future reports, the department can strive to minimize the potential for misinterpretation.”

This is not the first time that the DOJ/DHS report has been criticized. In January 2018, DHS analysts told the Daily Beast that they did not perform the analysis in the report; then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office took charge of assembling the report’s statistics. The DHS analysts also said that the data sought for the report by the DOJ does not exist in their agency, as the DHS does not track or correlate international terrorism data by citizenship or country of origin. In September 2018, eighteen former counterterrorism officials urged the DOJ and DHS to retract or correct the report in an official letter, describing in detail why the data and statements in the report were “misleading,” “inaccurate,” and inconsistent with previous “statistical studies and our experience.” The counterterrorism officials added that “the report appears designed to give the misleading impression that immigrants — and even their citizen family members — are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States.”

The DOJ/DHS report clearly contains errors that make a correction or retraction a necessity. By failing to issue a retraction or correction, the agencies are circumventing their duty to the public to accurately report scientific information. The fair and objective representation of scientific data depends on the issuing of corrigenda and retractions, for if readers cannot safely assume that the scientific results being reported in a publication are evidence-based, then the advancement of science is in serious trouble. This is especially important for our federal agencies who rely on science to develop policies that safeguard the public and our environment. If science is not done in a objective way, then results are left to the whim of powerful interests who may not always have the public’s best interests at heart.