Trump of­fi­cials ex­ag­ger­ate ter­ror­ist threat on bor­der

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ for­[email protected]­clatchydc.com WASHINGTON

As con­gres­sional lead­ers hud­dled with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in the Si­t­u­a­tion Room, where wars and covert ac­tions are mon­i­tored, Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen threw out an alarm­ing num­ber that took mem­bers of Congress by sur­prise.

Sit­ting around a con­fer­ence ta­ble in the se­cure White House base­ment cham­ber on Wed­nes­day, Nielsen told the group that in­cluded Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, ad­viser Jared Kush­ner and top con­gres­sional lead­ers of both par­ties that bor­der of­fi­cials had ap­pre­hended more than 3,000 ter­ror­ists and 17,000 crim­i­nals along the U.s.-mex­ico bor­der in the past year, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the pri­vate meet­ing.

Nielsen was try­ing to per­suade Democrats of the need for a com­plete wall along the bor­der. But the claim back­fired, with mem­bers push­ing back on the claim three min­utes into her re­marks, the per­son said. To bol­ster the point, Trump pub­licly re­leased a let­ter to all mem­bers of Congress mak­ing the point and staff took to tele­vi­sion to em­pha­size the ter­ror­ist threat.

But bor­der en­force­ment ex­perts say those fig­ures aren’t ac­cu­rate.

“It’s very un­likely that 4,000 peo­ple on ter­ror­ist watch list have been ap­pre­hended as op­posed to 4,000 peo­ple from travel banned coun­tries were ap­pre­hended,” said Leon Fresco, who served as deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for the of­fice of im­mi­gra­tion lit­i­ga­tion in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If so, where are they?”

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials are now say­ing that 3,755 known or sus­pected ter­ror­ists were stopped try­ing to en­ter­ing the U.S. by land in fis­cal year

2017. Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in the Rose Gar­den on Fri­day, Nielsen de­scribed those cap­tured as “spe­cial in­ter­est aliens.”

“Those are aliens who the in­tel com­mu­nity has iden­ti­fied as a con­cern,” Nielsen said. “They ei­ther have travel pat­terns that are iden­ti­fied as ter­ror­ist travel pat­terns or they have known or sus­pected ties to ter­ror­ism.”

But sta­tis­tics from the Jus­tice Depart­ment and DHS be­lie Nielsen’s num­bers. In fis­cal 2017, DHS en­coun­tered 2,554 peo­ple on the ter­ror­ist watch list trav­el­ing to the United States. But of those, only 335 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter by land.

The ma­jor­ity, 2,170 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter through air­ports, and 49 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter by sea.

Those in­side the con­tentious meet­ing Wed­nes­day said Nielsen spoke about the ter­ror­ism threat for three min­utes when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ques­tioned whether those num­bers in­cluded peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally.

Nielsen said that was not the case.

In the let­ter, Trump crit­i­cized Democrats for not al­low­ing Nielsen to give a more in-depth pre­sen­ta­tion on the depth and sever­ity of what he called the hu­man­i­tar­ian and se­cu­rity cri­sis at the south­ern bor­der.

The stand­off con­tin­ued through Fri­day, where Trump held an­other tense meet­ing with lead­ers demon­strat­ing how far apart the two sides con­tinue to be.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer de­scribed the dis­cus­sion as con­tentious and Trump warned the shut­down could last months, if not years.

“The bot­tom line is we made a plea to the pres­i­dent: ‘Don’t hold mil­lions of Amer­i­cans and hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers hostage,’ ” Schumer said.

At the news con­fer­ence, Trump ap­peared to back off the threat and promised a work­ing group would meet over the weekend to try to find a com­pro­mise with Democrats, who want to re­open the shut­tered parts of the gov­ern­ment be­sides DHS. But he also warned that he could use emer­gency pow­ers to build the wall if needed.

“We can call a na­tional emer­gency be­cause of the se­cu­rity,” Trump said. “I haven’t done it. I may do it, but we can call a na­tional emer­gency and build it very quickly.”

In his let­ter, Trump out­lined that 17,000 adults with crim­i­nal records were ap­pre­hended by Bor­der Pa­trol. He noted that more than 20,000 mi­nors were smug­gled into the United States and that the im­mi­gra­tion court’s back­log is years long with nearly 800,000 cases wait­ing to be heard.

There has been a 2,000 per­cent in­crease in asy­lum claims over the past five years, with nine in 10 claims com­ing from Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants.

But Trump did not men­tion the ter­ror­ist fig­ures. He did men­tion the threat dur­ing his Rose Gar­den brief­ing Fri­day.

He warned that “vast num­ber of ve­hi­cles” filled with hu­man smug­glers and ter­ror­ists can sim­ply drive across open spa­ces of the desert where there is no wall or bar­rier. He ac­knowl­edged most peo­ple don’t talk about the ter­ror­ist threat, but

Trump said it’s the easy place for ter­ror­ists to get into the United States.

“The bor­der is a much more dan­ger­ous prob­lem. It’s a prob­lem of na­tional se­cu­rity. It’s a prob­lem of ter­ror­ists,” Trump said dur­ing the brief­ing. “They find it’s the eas­i­est place to come through. They drive right in and make a left. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

Franco Or­donez: 202-302-4697, @fran­co­or­donez

No break­through in shut­down talks led by Pence

As a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down en­tered its third week, ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and con­gres­sional aides from both par­ties yielded lit­tle progress Satur­day while the im­pact on gov­ern­ment ser­vices and on fed­eral work­ers was wors­en­ing by the day.

“Not much head­way made to­day,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump con­ceded on Twit­ter, not long af­ter the vice pres­i­dent’s of­fice char­ac­ter­ized the roughly two-hour talks, held next to the White House at the Old Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice Build­ing, as “pro­duc­tive.”

The two sides are sched­uled to meet again Sun­day af­ter­noon.

Agen­cies ad­vised to de­lay raises for top of­fi­cials

Fed­eral agen­cies have been di­rected to hold off en­act­ing pay raises for top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials dur­ing a shut­down that has left hun­dreds of thou­sands of fed­eral work­ers with­out pay.

The raises were the re­sult of a pay freeze for top of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the vice pres­i­dent and Cab­i­net sec­re­taries, that was on the verge of ex­pir­ing be­cause of the shut­down.

In a memo is­sued Fri­day, Mar­garet We­ichert, the act­ing direc­tor of the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, wrote that OPM “be­lieves it would be pru­dent” for agen­cies to con­tinue to pay these se­nior po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials at the frozen rate” for now.

Air­ports see rise in sick calls for TSA screen­ers

The fed­eral agency tasked with guar­an­tee­ing U.S. air­port se­cu­rity ac­knowl­edged an in­crease in the num­ber of its em­ploy­ees call­ing off work dur­ing the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Em­ploy­ees of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion are ex­pected to work with­out pay dur­ing the shut­down be­cause their jobs are con­sid­ered essen­tial.

The TSA did not say how many em­ploy­ees have called out, but it said wait times so far “re­main well within TSA stan­dards.”

“Se­cu­rity ef­fec­tive­ness will not be com­pro­mised,” the agency state­ment said.

JAC­QUE­LYN MARTIN AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen Fri­day at the White House.

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