Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Migration from Islamic Countries

A call for corrections in the New York Times

By Todd Bensman on February 7, 2019

[A piece on this subject also appeared recently in The Federalist.]

The New York Times last month published a "Fact Check" column by Linda Qiu titled "Trump's Baseless Claim About Prayer Rugs Found at the Border".

The column contained numerous inaccurate citations and misleading statements. It also is emblematic of other reporting that is at sharp odds with facts regarding Trump administration assertions that migration is occurring from countries of terrorism concern to the U.S. southern border and that professionals regard it as a homeland security threat. Qiu's fact-check column wrongly states that migration from Islamic countries to the border is unproven and inaccurately cites two government reports in asserting that federal agencies don't regard such migration as a homeland security risk.

CIS reached out to Qiu and an editor about corrections to the article, but did not receive a response.

Qiu is hardly alone among reporters and pundits in her false characterizations of this threat issue, ignoring evidence-based perspectives that could get Americans closer to the truth about a consequential national security policy. Contrary to the reporting by Qiu and others, thousands of migrants from countries of terrorism concern do reach the U.S. southern border every year; whether they leave prayer rugs behind is irrelevant. It is also true that U.S. homeland security professionals have, for many years, regarded this migrant traffic as a higher threat requiring special vetting, investigation, and intelligence work not reserved for migrants from any other countries.

It is obvious that Qiu and other reporters have not actually read the primary government documents they cite.

Correction 1: What's in the White House National Counterterrorism Strategy?

A correction is necessary for Qiu's statement in her column that: "Nowhere in the White House's 25-page counterterrorism policy, released in October, was the threat of terrorists infiltrating the nation's southwest border raised."

That's not true.

The White House's "National Strategy for Counterterrorism" included information so pointed in its emphasis on the threat of terrorists infiltrating the border that I felt compelled to write a post analyzing what the document says about border infiltration, just days after it was publicly released. As I pointed out then, "a key difference between this month's new counterterrorism strategy and the last one is an emphatic acknowledgement that U.S. land borders are vulnerable to infiltration by Islamist terrorists and should be made less so."

How did I come to that conclusion? By reading the document. The strategy points out that perpetrators of the 2015 terror attacks on Paris "infiltrated" the country posing as migrants and suggests this holds implications for our own land borders. The terrorist group ISIS was able to exploit weaknesses in European border security, it said, "to great effect by capitalizing on the migrant crisis to seed attack operatives into the region."

The strategy document says: "Europe's struggle to screen the people crossing its borders highlights the importance of ensuring strong United States borders so that terrorists cannot enter the United States." It then goes on to list "priority actions" about disrupting terrorist travel and securing the border from terrorist threats. One is by sharing intelligence information with "our partners to enhance travel security and border protection to prevent terrorists fleeing conflict zones from infiltrating civilian populations" and by helping foreign law enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute them long before they reach U.S. borders. Included under another priority action is this:

Our efforts will begin overseas, where we will ensure that our partners share and use information, such as watch lists, biometric information, and travel data, to prevent terrorists and fleeing foreign fighters from traveling to the United States. … At our borders, we will modernize our screening and identity intelligence capabilities to track terrorist travelers and prevent he entry of those who support terrorist ideologies and violence.

Correction or Clarification 2: What's in the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism 2017"?

A clarification is needed to counter the false impression Qiu leaves in writing that migration from Islamic countries carries no terrorist infiltration threat. Here, she misleadingly cited a part of the report in order to say: "And the State Department, in a September report, said there was 'no credible evidence' that terrorist groups had sent operatives to enter the United States through Mexico."

This statement is misleading because the State Department report is far more nuanced. It also says, in close proximity to the part about no evidence of operatives sent over the border from Mexico, that "The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States." (Emphasis added.)

Elsewhere, the report (p. 194), it states that, "In addition, many Latin American countries have porous borders, limited law enforcement capabilities, and established smuggling routes. These vulnerabilities offer opportunities to foreign terrorist groups, but there have been no cases of terrorist groups exploiting these gaps to move operations through the region." (Emphasis added.)

To cite the state department report as only saying no terrorists have crossed from Mexico — and never that it also says the southern border is still vulnerable to terrorist infiltration — is misleading by tactical omission. The State Department report clearly preserves the notion that the U.S. land border remains vulnerable to terrorist infiltration and says so twice.

Also worth noting is that the State Department's partial conclusion about no cases of organized terrorist groups exploiting gaps does not address lone offenders and small cells that would not be part of an organized terrorist group deploying operatives. As well, the State Department report only addresses circumstances in 2017 when talking about organized terrorist groups not deploying operatives, not forever before and after, as media often attributes to this report.

Other news outlets have reported that migrants on terror watch lists have been apprehended at the southern border in the first half of 2018. Meanwhile, intelligence community sources have told me that more than 100 terror-watch listed migrants have reached the U.S. southern border, or were caught en route, between 2012 and 2017.

I know something about all of this because I penned an analytical blog about the State Department report within days of its release last September after carefully reading the entire report.

Correction 3: Migration from Islamic Nations to the U.S. Southern Borders Is Proven

The Qiu piece, in its subhead and strongly suggested elsewhere, characterizes Islamic migration to the U.S. border as "unproved rumor", when the opposite is true. I have met actual migrants from Islamic countries who make the journey. In my capacity both as a former journalist and as an intelligence practitioner, I have photographed and videotaped them at the border after they have crossed and while they were en route through Latin America. I have interviewed them in ICE detention and while they were still on the routes coming in. Meanwhile, thousands of court case records from 22 smuggling prosecutions are available, in which sworn federal officers discuss how the migrants and their smugglers do it.

Correction 4: Migration from Islamic Countries to the U.S. Southern Border Is Regarded as a Real Homeland Security Threat

Also colliding hard into facts is the assertion that such migration, even if it did exist, presents no homeland security threat.

Congressional testimony is readily available in which many high-ranking DHS officials over the years have discussed land-border migration from Islamic countries as a homeland threat, long before Donald Trump. The Democratic likes of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson regarded this completely undisputed migration as such a serious homeland threat as recently as 2016 that he called for a whole-of-government program to counter it.

At the very least, serious, well-trained, and experienced homeland security professionals, like Johnson, hold a different opinion about whether this migration is a threat. Writers need to be able to overcome their personal disdain for the president and seek out the other voices and facts available to them. They should do so to get readers closer to the most complete and accurate picture possible of a homeland security problem that is both nuanced and multi-dimensional.