It’s Not Foreigners Who are Plotting Here: What the Data Really Show
Nora Ellingsen writes at Lawfare.com:
A little more than a week ago, Benjamin Wittes posted a piece about the malevolence and incompetence of Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees—an order that, in his words, is both wildly over-inclusive and wildly under-inclusive. If we take the ban and its stated purpose at face value (which Ben argued we should not), at best, the ban is ineffective and fails “to protect Americans.” At worst, as many experts have suggested over the past few weeks, the Executive Order is completely counterproductive. As ten bipartisan former national security officials—four of whom were briefed regularly on all credible terrorist threat streams against the U.S. as recently as a week before the EO—said in a legal brief on Monday:
We view the order as one that ultimately undermines the national security of the United States, rather than making us safer…It could do long-term damage to our national security and foreign policy interests, endangering U.S. troops in the field and disrupting counterterrorism and national security partnerships.
Ben’s piece touched a nerve. It has received nearly half a million pageviews, according to Google Analytics, and was featured this week on This American Life.
In this post, I want to follow up on and flesh out an aspect of the piece that has gotten a lot of attention but much of it in the vein of repetition, not elucidation. Specifically, Ben pointed to some of the most compelling empirical evidence on the issue of ineffectiveness: the EO wouldn’t have blocked the entry of any of the individuals responsible for recent terrorist attacks on American soil. Other media organizations have elaborated on the theme, with various news outlets running stories showing that no one from any of the seven countries included in the Executive Order has carried out a fatal attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. But there’s more to say on this subject and more data to share on it, and I suppose I’m as good a person as any to shed some light.
I know something about domestic terrorism investigations. Before going to law school 18 months ago, I spent five years at the FBI working in an analytical capacity. I spent the majority of that time providing case assistance to FBI agents working international terrorism investigations within the United States—in other words, cases very similar to the ones the president insists we need to keep Muslims out to stop. I spent those five years responding to terrorism threats to the United States, and working cases up until the point of arrest. I also worked extensively with other government agencies and deployed overseas in support of the Bureau’s counterterrorism mission.
Moreover, because of my background, when I started working with Lawfare, Ben asked me to track criminal cases for the site, so I have kept up with the flow of public counterterrorism cases around the country over the last year about as closely as anyone has. I actually know this data—what they say, and what they don’t say.
There may be people around who know the data even better than I do, but one of them is clearly not Kellyanne Conway, who either misspoke on national television in a particularly embarassing fashion or simply made up a terrorist plot. The only true fact she relayed to Chris Matthews about the “Bowling Green massacre,” was this one: “Most people don’t know [about] that because it didn’t get covered.” Indeed, the Bowling Green massacre didn’t get covered—because it never happened. Nonetheless, in response to the media criticism of Conway, the White House released a list of 78 terrorist attacks it says were underreported; the New York Times has annotated the list with the paper’s coverage of every attack.
It is true, however, that the volume of cases is much larger than the media’s appetite for in-depth coverage of them—a fact that is actually true of most crime categories. The FBI arrests dozens of counterterrorism suspects each year and, generally, those cases receive little more coverage than a spot on the CNN ticker at the bottom of your screen. For every successful attack, and every subsequent article asking where and how the FBI went wrong, there are a lot of cases that get interrupted early or mid-stream. Unless you make a conscious effort, you probably won’t hear much about most of them.
So the Bowling Green Massacre aside, it’s possible that Conway is right in some larger sense: that a close look at these cases would show heaps of refugees or immigrants from the seven named countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—plotting to blow things up and shoot up nightclubs and concert halls.
So let’s take a hard look at some empirical data I put together on who the terrorists are and how they relate to the assumptions in the executive order.
For those who don’t want to do this deep dive, here’s a quick two-sentence summary: Conway’s position is empirically indefensible. Absolutely nothing in the large body of data we have about real terrorist plots in the United States remotely supports either a focus on barring refugees or a focus on these particular seven countries.
All of othe data I’m going to cite come from official Justice Department documents that have been made publically available by the department. I began assembling them with a review of the National Security Division’s press releases, available here, and I tracked all counterterrorism subjects arrested or charged since January 1, 2015. When determining a subject’s immigration or citizenship status, I used the criminal complaint or indictment. At times, I had to review additional court documents to determine the details of a plot or a subject’s background. But all data here come from the official court docket; to the extent I rely on any outside sources, I explicitly refer to those outside sources explicitly below. . . .