President Donald Trump has assigned the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice Department, to help build the legal case for its temporary travel ban on individuals from seven countries, a senior White House official tells CNN.
Other Trump administration sources tell CNN that this is an assignment that has caused concern among some administration intelligence officials, who see the White House charge as the politicization of intelligence – the notion of a conclusion in search of evidence to support it after being blocked by the courts. Still others in the intelligence community disagree with the conclusion and are finding their work disparaged by their own department.
“DHS and DOJ are working on an intelligence report that will demonstrate that the security threat for these seven countries is substantial and that these seven countries have all been exporters of terrorism into the United States,” the senior White House official told CNN. “The situation has gotten more dangerous in recent years, and more broadly, the refugee program has been a major incubator for terrorism.”
The report was requested in light of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the Trump administration “has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” The seven counties are Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The senior White House official said the desire to bolster the legal and public case that these seven countries pose a threat is a work in progress and as of now, it’s not clear if DHS and DOJ will offer separate reports or a joint report.
One of the ways the White House hopes to make its case is by using a more expansive definition of terrorist activity than has been used by other government agencies in the past. The senior White House official said he expects the report about the threat from individuals the seven countries to include not just those terrorist attacks that have been carried out causing loss of innocent American life, but also those that have resulted in injuries, as well as investigations into and convictions for the crimes of a host of terrorism-related actions, including attempting to join or provide support for a terrorist organization.
The White House did not offer an on-the-record comment for this story despite numerous requests. The Department of Homeland Security, however, issued a statement Friday afternoon saying the seven countries were identified by the Obama administration as being of “great concern for terrorism.”
Dissension and concern
The White House expectation of what the report will show has some intelligence officials within the administration taking issue with this intelligence review, sources told CNN.
First, some intelligence officials disagree with the conclusion that immigration from these countries should be temporarily banned in the name of making the US safer. CNN has learned that the Department of Homeland Security’s in-house intelligence agency, the I&A offered a report that is at odds with the Trump administration’s view that blocking immigration from these seven countries strategically makes sense.
It’s not clear if this was the conclusion of the I&A report but many DHS officials have said they do not think nationality is the best indicator of potential terrorist inclinations.
A Department of Homeland Security source who asked for anonymity since he was not authorized to speak on the record said the report from the I&A officials did not meet the standards of the agency since it relied upon open source material and did not utilize necessary data from the intelligence community, specifically the FBI.
Others in DHS disagree with that assessment of the I&A report and a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security told CNN that some DHS officials are concerned that the new I&A director – Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence David Glawe – may be politicizing intelligence. One source familiar with the department told CNN that Glawe came into I&A “like a bull in a china shop.”
A DHS official says the intention was to put together a comprehensive report with multiple sources and other agencies but the individuals in I&A did not do that to the standard that was required by their leadership, so Glawe said the report wasn’t sufficient to go forward.”
DHS spokeswoman Gillian M. Christensen said the report was “commentary from open source reporting versus an official, robust document with thorough interagency sourcing. The (Office of Intelligence and Analysis) report does not include data from other intelligence community sources. It is clear on its face that it is an incomplete product that fails to find evidence of terrorism by simply refusing to look at all the available evidence.”
“Any suggestion by opponents of the President’s policies that senior DHS intelligence officials would politicize this process or a report’s final conclusions is absurd and not factually accurate. The dispute with this product was over sources and quality, not politics,” Christensen added.
The seven countries were originally designated by DHS in the Obama administration for tighter immigration scrutiny – removing them from the visa waiver program – but not for a temporary suspension of immigration, as the Trump administration has attempted.
A second issue for many in the intelligence community is the notion of the Trump White House seeking an intelligence report to fit the policy instead of the other way around, sources tell CNN.
A senior government official told CNN that the normal procedure would be for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to be tasked with creating such an intelligence report, working with all relevant agencies and providing dissenting views. Theoretically, this would be done before the policy was formulated.
The senior White House official told CNN that it’s possible that the National Counterterrorism Center, via the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and perhaps the National Security Council might also provide reports on the same subject.
A senior government official told CNN that the National Counterterrorism Center, via the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has already been tasked with such a report, separately from DHS and DOJ. This has prompted some in government to wonder whether the White House is shopping around among agencies for the report that best bolsters their policy and legal support for it.
Other intelligence officials told CNN that such discussions among agencies about differing interpretations of the existing intelligence are not unusual and do not necessarily reflect an effort to “shop around” for intelligence to support a particular policy.
White House to make its case
The White House is determined to prove that the Ninth Circuit argument is wrong, as are Democrats and those in the media, that terror attacks do not predominantly originate from the seven countries targeted by Trump’s order.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler said on CNN late last month that “the various people who have, in fact, committed terrorist acts in this country, from 9/11 on, none of them came from any of the seven countries that are the subject of the President’s executive order.”
The senior White House official told CNN that the Ninth Circuit’s language that no one from those seven countries has “perpetrated a terrorist attack” or Nadler’s comment that none had “committed terrorist acts” is false.
“It’s using the most narrow definition of the term you can use,” the official said – referring only to those who had successful killed an innocent civilian. That definition does not include those who wounded Americans, or those who plotted but failed in their attacks, or those who tried to join or provide material support to a terrorist group. Information will soon be presented to the public that makes this stronger case using the broader definition.
A case in point: Somali-born Abdul Razak Ali Artan attempted to run over and stab 13 innocent people at Ohio State University last November. He and his family left Somalia in 2007 and moved to Pakistan, arriving in the US in 2014. He was a legal permanent resident. His attack would not count using the more narrow definition.
“In most cases, the American people don’t hear about these cases,” the senior White House official said, “but these cases have required thousands of man-hours by law enforcement in any number of plots to commit terrorism against this country. The threat is very jarring.”
The White House official said the Obama administration tried to downplay the threat while the Trump administration believes in a culture of “very robust disclosure.”
Asked about the report Thursday on “The Lead,” Rep. Dan Donovan, R-New York, emphasized that the intelligence community be nonpartisan.
“They should take data, take information, shouldn’t interpret it in a political way and provide the President the information he needs to make decisions to protect our country,” he said.
Also commenting on the report was Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who acknowledged that he hadn’t seen the specifics but “it looks wrong to me.”
“We ought to be doing the intel first, then set the policy and in large part based upon the intelligence,” Haass said. “If these reports are true, it’s yet another example where this administration is having real trouble forging a functional relationship with the intelligence community.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect new information from the Department of Homeland Security.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.