Under Trump, can we trust the government's terrorism data?

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David Sterman is a policy analyst at New America's International Security Program. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)On Tuesday, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice released a report that was mandated by President Trump's executive order -- signed in March 2017 -- which revised the "travel ban" from a number of Muslim-majority countries.

David Sterman
Attorney General Jeff Sessions asserted that Tuesday's report -- which found that 73% of individuals convicted of international terrorism crimes in federal courts between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2016 were foreign-born -- "reveals an indisputable sobering reality -- our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety."
Far from revealing an indisputable reality, the misleading report is, in fact, the latest indication that the Trump administration is trying to skirt the truth.
    President Trump promoted the new report by tweeting that it shows "nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born," dropping the key qualifier of "international."
    This tweet ignores the numerous incidents of terrorism in the United States committed by individuals motivated by far-right and other ideological motives.
    Far-right-wing terrorists have killed 69 people in the US since the 9/11 attacks. The vast majority of individuals involved in those plots were born American citizens.
    Even if you look only at jihadist terrorism, the report's findings are misleading on several points.
    First, it includes the cases of terrorists who were captured abroad for terrorist incidents, but had never set foot in the United States before they faced trial. Such foreign terrorists are not immigrants.
    This would not be the first time the administration has played fast and loose with the facts on this issue. In February, 2017, White House adviser Stephen Miller told NBC's Meet the Press: "First of all, 72 individuals, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States who hail from those seven nations, point one." The data he cited -- originally collected by then-Senator Sessions and presumably the basis for parts of this new report -- included four terrorists who came to the US to face trial.
    Second, contrary to the thrust of the new report, most foreign-born terrorists have radicalized in the United States, not in the countries that they often left when they were children. A leaked Department of Homeland Security draft report from March 2017 obtained by MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" states: "We assess that most foreign-born US-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States."
    The report found that almost half of foreign-born extremists were less than 16 years old when they entered the country, and a majority were only indicted more than ten years after they had first entered the country.
    A CNN review of the eight cases actually named in Tuesday's report found that "several of the individuals had lived in the United States for many years before committing the terror-related offenses they were eventually convicted for in federal court."
    Once again, this is not a new issue. The data Stephen Miller cited in February to defend the travel ban included the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who came to the United States when he was a young child and who was arrested and convicted of plotting to attack a Christmas tree ceremony in Portland, Oregon, more than a decade after he came to the United States.
    The citation of the case was not just Miller using misleading data that happened to include Mohamud. The Mohamud case was specifically cited to defend the travel ban in a set of frequently asked questions on the ban that was posted by the US Department of Homeland Security.
    Meanwhile, the data being cited by the Trump administration contrasts with that collected by the nonpartisan research institution, New America, which found that about half of the 420 individuals accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in the United States since 9/11 were born American citizens and that 85% were either US citizens or legal permanent residents.
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    By including only those convicted in federal courts, the government's new report excludes well known examples of deadly terrorist attackers who were natural born American citizens, such as Carlos Bledsoe, who killed a soldier in an attack on a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2009 and was charged in state court.
    Nidal Hasan, who was born in Arlington, Virginia, killed 13 people in 2009 in an attack at the Fort Hood, Texas military base. Since he was charged in military court, his case is not included in this week's report.
    Also left out is Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in an attack in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 and died during the attack.
    While none of these three native-born American citizens are included in the new government report, they alone killed more than half of all the victims killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States since 9/11. Indeed, 8 of the 14 individuals -- including Bledsoe, Mateen, and Hasan -- who committed deadly jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11 were also born in the United States.
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    While the government may assert it has access to better data or secret information, New America's conclusions are supported by other examinations of the origins of American terrorists, including from the RAND Corporation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, both of which also found about half of the jihadist terrorists they examined to have been born American citizens.
    With the repeated misleading claims by an administration set upon defending a policy that was seemingly crafted to defend candidate Trump's call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," the question must be asked: Can the government's claims regarding the terrorist threat be trusted?
    If the answer is no, that has serious ramifications for efforts to prevent terrorism and communicate effectively when an attack does occur.