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Fact Checker | Analysis

Trump's claim that 'more than 300’ refugees are subjects of counterterrorism investigations

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

March 6, 2017 at 5:43 PM

President Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

"The Attorney General has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
— President Trump, executive order on immigration, March 6, 2017

"In fact, today, more than 300 people, according to the FBI, who came here as refugees are under an FBI investigation today for potential terrorism-related activities."
— Attorney General Jeff Sessions, remarks on executive order, March 6, 2017

"The FBI is currently looking and investigating active terrorism-related investigations into approximately 300 individuals who are admitted to the United States as refugees. Not a small number. That's a tremendous administrative burden of manpower and resources."
— Unidentified senior administration official, news briefing via teleconference, March 6, 2017

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported that approximately 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations."
— Question and Answer fact sheet on executive order, March 6, 2017

Clearly, the administration decided this was a key talking point for the rollout of its new immigration executive order: that more than 300 refugees are subjects of counterterrorism investigations.

On March 6, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, revising the version that led to massive confusion around the world and a federal court decision that halted enforcement of the order.

Administration officials did not provide information about the investigations or any context to understand how significant the 300 figure is. In response to our inquiry, the Justice Department declined to provide additional information.

But here's the problem. Without context, this 300 figure is meaningless. We will explain three reasons for that.

The Facts

The 300 figure is a tiny fraction of all resettled refugees in the United States.

On its own, 300 may seem like a large number of refugees. But since Congress created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program through the Refugee Act of 1980, about 3 million refugees have resettled in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. That comes out to an average of about 83,300 refugees per year. That means that even if the 300 refugees came to the United States in one year, they would represent less than 1 percent of the total number of refugees accepted on average per year since 1980.

When a reporter at the briefing expressed skepticism about the number, in effect asking how the public can trust the administration, an official said: "The salient fact here is that there are 300 individuals who were admitted and welcomed to the United States through a refugees admissions program who either infiltrated with hostile intent or who radicalized after their admission to the United States."

But we have no way to know whether the administration's claim is accurate. Many of these refugees could now be citizens or legal residents. This 300 figure doesn't tell us whether the individuals were radicalized in the United States, years after entering the country.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, roughly 190,000 refugees were accepted into the United States from the six countries (Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen) identified in the new order, according to data from the State Department's Refugee Processing Center. So 300 represents one-fifteenth of 1 percent of refugees admitted from those six countries since 9/11.

In fiscal 2016, 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the United States — comprising 46 percent of nearly 83,5000 refugees admitted in that period, Pew Research analysis shows. (As The Washington Post noted, the new travel ban still wouldn't have prevented entry of people who carried out recent deadly attacks tied to Islamist extremist ideology.)

The 300 figure may represent 30 percent or 3 percent (or something entirely different) of total open investigations.

We don't know the full universe of open investigations, but previous reports give us a sense of how many investigations the FBI conducts in a given year.

There are at least 1,000 open investigations into "homegrown violent extremists," according to FBI officials interviewed by the New York Times in June 2016. On March 6, congressional sources told Reuters that the investigation of 300 refugees is a part of 1,000 counterterrorism investigations "involving Islamic State or individuals inspired by the militant group." So that means refugees comprise 30 percent of the open investigations into potential terrorism-related activities.

The FBI has averaged 7,000 to 10,000 preliminary or full investigations involving international terrorism annually in recent years, the Times reported in September 2016. So that means the 300 refugee investigations make up about 3 percent of the total number of assessments per year in recent years.

"In addition, the FBI receives tens of thousands of terrorism tips. All of those have to be tracked down. … That does not include information the FBI learns from foreign partners, war zones or American agencies. Most investigations never end in prosecution," the Times reported.

As we reported in May 2016, about 10 terrorism-related cases since 2009 have involved refugees. In 2015, a State Department spokesman told us that of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11, "only about a dozen — a tiny fraction of 1 percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S."

[Update: Through a May 3, 2017, congressional testimony and May 9 follow-up letter, the FBI said there are about 1,000 investigations of suspected homegrown violent extremists and another 1,000 investigations of people suspected of being connected to ISIS. The FBI said the 2,000 investigations are a subset of the total number of counterterrorism investigations, which is classified.]

It's unclear what — if any — terrorism charges are involved in these cases.

While the Justice Department did not provide data to support its assertion, it may be deriving data from the Justice Department National Security Division's list of terrorism and terrorism-related convictions, wrote Shirin Sinnar, an associate law professor at Stanford Law School. Previously, Sessions used this data to claim that hundreds of people convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related activities were foreign-born. Sinnar obtained the division's list of public or unsealed international terrorism and related convictions from Sept. 11, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2015, through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Sinnar found this list to be a misleading source to support the administration's claims about its travel ban. (For more, read the full, detailed report.)

Among the problems is that it lists 627 "terrorism and terrorism-related" convictions through the end of 2015, but it does not include convictions related to domestic terrorism. So this list is not a credible source for assessing threats from foreigners of attacks in the U.S. homeland — or for screening who should enter the United States.

In the past, administration officials considered a wide range of charges to mean "terroristic activity." We previously awarded Three Pinocchios to White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller's claim that 72 people from the countries listed in the travel ban were implicated in terroristic activity. Some of the charges involved people convicted of providing material support, such as money or personnel, to groups that are designated as terrorist organizations. But also included were people convicted of passport fraud, visa fraud and making fraudulent claims to federal investigators.

[Update: At least 70 percent of the 300 people under review are from countries not covered by the travel ban, according to officials interviewed by The Washington Post. More than half are or were Iraqi nationals — yet Iraq is not covered in the revised ban. Further: "Officials familiar with the data said roughly two-thirds of the people on the administration's tally also arrived seven or more years ago, before the government significantly tightened its vetting procedures for Iraqis entering the United States."]

Regardless of the direct or tangential ties that investigators believe each individual may have to terrorist activities, these charges need to be proven in a court of law. Counterterrorism investigations are not actual charges, noted David Sterman, policy analyst at New America, a think tank that closely monitors jihadist activity in the United States.

New America found about 400 people charged with or credibly involved in jihadist-inspired activity in the United States since 9/11; just under half (197) were U.S.-born citizens. An additional 82 were naturalized citizens, and 44 were permanent residents. Twelve were refugees — meaning refugees represent 3 percent. That there were 400 terrorism-related cases since 9/11 suggests that very few investigations actually turn into full cases, Sterman said.

"Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents. Moreover, while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration," according to the New America report on jihadist activity since 9/11.

(Courtesy of New America)

The Pinocchio Test

It's irresponsible for the administration to tout this number repeatedly without context or giving the public additional information to understand whether refugees are a threat to the U.S. homeland. The burden of proof is on the speaker, yet administration officials repeatedly declined reporters' requests for more information. Moreover, the administration's credibility on factual accuracy is open to question, given the frequent false claims made by the president and other senior officials.

This 300 figure, without context, is problematic for three reasons. It represents a tiny fraction of all resettled refugees in the United States per year (83,380 on average), and since the refugee program began in 1980 (3 million). Since Sept. 11, 2001, roughly 190,000 refugees were accepted into the United States from the six countries listed in the immigration executive order. The 300 figure represents a fraction — though it is unclear how small or big — of the total open counterterrorism investigations (which could be 1,000 or up to 10,000). And we have no idea what charges are involved, or if these investigations will even result in any charges (or convictions, for that matter).

In the absence of context or additional information from the administration, we find this figure highly misleading, worthy of Three Pinocchios. Should the administration decide to share more information to place this figure into context, we're happy to reconsider the evidence and the rating.

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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