Trump of­fi­cials ex­ag­ger­ate ter­ror­ist threat on south­ern bor­der in tense briefing

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ for­[email protected]­

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

Sit­ting around a con­fer­ence ta­ble Wed­nes­day in the se­cure White House base­ment cham­ber, 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 con­vince 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 was deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for the of­fice of im­mi­gra­tion lit­i­ga­tion in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If so, where are they?”

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials now say that 3,755 known or sus­pected ter­ror­ists were stopped try­ing to en­ter­ing the U.S. by land in fis­cal 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,” she 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 at­tempted to en­ter by land.

The ma­jor­ity, 2,170, tried 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, when Trump held an­other tense meet­ing with lead­ers demon­strat­ing how far apart the two sides are.

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.



Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

At the news con­fer­ence, Trump ap­peared to back off the threat and promised that 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 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 said 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 that most peo­ple don’t talk about the ter­ror­ist threat, but 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. “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 Ordoñez: 202-302- 4697, @fran­co­or­donez


Pres­i­dent Trump lis­tens Fri­day as Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen speaks af­ter a meet­ing with con­gres­sional lead­ers.

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