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Good Enough for Government Work? Joint DOJ/DHS Terrorism Report Presents Misleading Data.

posted on: Jan 19, 2018

 Good Enough for Government Work? Joint DOJ/DHS Terrorism Report Presents Misleading Data.



At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Edward O’Callaghan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department’s National Security Division, discussed some of the findings published in Tuesday’s joint DOJ/DHS report on terrorism and immigration. The long-overdue report was released amidst an immigration debate on Capitol Hill that has seen spasmodic eruptions in recent days. Questions regarding the timing of the release, which a senior administration official assured was merely “coincidental,” aside, the 11-page report has been the subject of many more pages of criticism. Some primary concerns include the limited amount of data presented in the report, both “incomplete and devoid of context,” but also the degree to which such data has been manipulated to support the Trump Administration’s regressive policy agenda. 

For excellent commentary on the matter, we recommend that readers turn to Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice, whose piece in Just Security puts the report in context, breaking down some of its principal claims while highlighting its reliance on numbers “either deliberately inflated or unverifiable.” For additional analysis, including a systematic deconstruction of Justice Department terrorism data, readers should consider a series of articles published in Lawfare.  

For those who do not have time to consult the articles linked above, we will discuss some of the primary issues with the report in brief. Notably, cases of domestic terrorism, in which perpetrators are more likely to be white and born in the US, are excluded from the report. The report does include, however, cases in which foreign-born individuals were extradited to the US for prosecution. This inclusion seems to violate the set parameters of the report itself, which pursuant to EO 13780, otherwise known as “Muslim Ban 2.0.,” must provide information regarding foreign nationals who have been charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offenses while in the United States. While the individuals in question were in fact convicted in the United States, given they were extradited and prosecuted in federal courts, the inclusion suggests a rather artful interpretation of the requirements set forth in the executive order.

Furthermore, the report conflates terrorism convictions with “terrorism-related charges,” which based on an overly broad definition of material support, in addition to inaccurate reporting and data collection by the Department of Justice, could be misleading. What results is a partial (in both senses of the word) representation of data, warped and weaponized to advance xenophobic immigration policies that malign individuals from Arab and/or Muslim-majority countries.

In the space remaining, we should address some additional purported findings disclosed in the report, which have received little response but were cited in yesterday’s press briefing. Speaking to reporters, and citing “surveys previously commissioned by DOJ components,” O’Callaghan noted, “There are an estimated 23-27 honor killings every year in the United States, and that there are an estimated, approximately half a million women and girls in the United States at risk of undergoing the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation.”

O’Callaghan is right to describe FGM/C in this way. The practice is indeed abhorrent, and so is any form of gender-based violence. The numbers he cites, however, are misleading. In regard to the estimate that “23-27 honor killings” occur in the US each year, that number comes from a 2014 report submitted to the Department of Justice, which cited unpublished research that applied demographic characteristics in the US to “another country’s honor violence statistics.” A similar extrapolation produced the statistics O’Callaghan cited regarding FGM/C, this time from a 2016 Public Health Reports study, which estimates the number of women and girls in the US at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting “by applying country-specific prevalence of FGM/C to the estimated number of women and girls living in the United States who were born in that country or who lived with a parent from that country.”

For some perspective as to what this methodology entails: if you are a female aged 15-49 living in the US, you were born in Egypt, or you live with parents who were born there, then according to this report, there is a 91 percent chance you are at risk of FGM/C. Researchers noted several limitations with respect to the estimate in question, which assumes that people migrating to the US retain the cultural practices attributed to their countries of origin, fails to account for geographic or local variation regarding the prevalence of FGM/C in those countries, and potentially relies on outdated prevalence data. “The results,” according to researchers, “do not provide information on the extent to which FGM/C is practiced in the United States.”

These qualifications are significant, and are likewise presented in the corresponding “honor violence” study. Researchers noted that in regard to the nationwide estimate, “There is no reliable summary data available for the United States regarding the prevalence of honor violence,” and furthermore, “cases of any type of honor violence appear to be rare in comparison to other types of crime in the United States.”

Speaking before the White House press corps and the American public, however, O’Callaghan cited these estimates without qualification. He also trumpeted compromised, obfuscatory statistics on the prevalence of terrorism in the United States. What resulted was an irresponsible defense of a misleading report. We should note the President’s tweet about the report fails to mention the absence of domestic terrorism cases from the data, and is thus even more deceitful.

Obscurantist tactics notwithstanding, the purpose of this report, and the intent of the Trump administration, is clear: to use shoddy research to uphold a xenophobic policy agenda, and to foment distrust and fear of individuals, including fellow Americans, with ties to Arab and/or Muslim-majority countries. This approach, both in the commission of the report and its subsequent rollout, demonstrates a gross politicization of government agencies, not to mention the dishonesty of White House officials. It is wrong, and must be challenged