Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Sean Hannity on Thursday night to make the case for President Trump’s border wall. And why did he say we need it? Terrorism. “There’s lots of risks associated,” Pompeo said of a wall-free U.S.-Mexico border, adding: “It includes the risk that we have terrorists come across that border.”
Except that that risk has been virtually nonexistent — according to the very State Department that Pompeo leads. The department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism wrote in July 2017 that there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States."
Pompeo didn’t technically say any terrorist had come across the border, but he didn’t have to. Comments like this — and more direct, false allegations made by Trump and Vice President Pence, among others — have fed a false narrative that suspected terrorists are streaming past the southern border at a rate of as many as 10 per day. These misleading and false claims are being repeated with regularity on Fox News and in other conservative media as the government shutdown hinges on Trump’s demand for a border wall.
On the same show where Pompeo appeared, Hannity alluded to terrorists coming across the border no fewer than three times. “How long are we going to witness ... the infiltration of gangs and even terrorists that we have identified trying to cross our border illegally?” he asked in his opening monologue. “We have terrorists that we have stopped crossing our border,” he claimed later. And just before the Pompeo quote above, Hannity supplied the premise that, “We’ve been able to apprehend 3,700 people that we’ve identified as having ties to terror.”
Except ... that number is not about the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s true that 10 actual and suspected terrorists are caught trying to enter the United States daily, according to government data. But according to the State Department, none have been apprehended at the southern border.
Yet the argument that terrorists are targeting the southern border constantly gets recycled, thanks to some willing conduits in powerful places.
“Last year alone, the department [of Homeland Security] prevented more than 3,700 known or suspected terrorists from traveling to or entering into the United States. Just last year!” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) wrote on Fox News’s website this week in an op-ed about the border wall. What Scalise didn’t say, of course, is that none of them was at the southern border; in fact, this is the number for all people who attempt to enter all ports of entry, including through airports.
Scalise allowed the likes of Hannity to falsely connect the dots. Pompeo didn’t correct Hannity directly, either; he fed Hannity’s false premise, even though Hannity’s injection of the 3,700 statistic came as they were specifically discussing the southern border:
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, too, did her part. “We are also concerned about potential terrorists as well, as you know,” she said at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. “In 2018 alone, we apprehended 3,000 special-interest aliens coming into our country along the southern border. These are aliens that have travel patterns or other characteristics of concern to the intelligence community.”
Nielsen, you’ll note, didn’t describe these 3,000 “special-interest aliens” as “suspected terrorists." And you can bet she would have if there were credible evidence. As the libertarian Cato Institute writes, the definition of “special interest” could “could apply to nearly every country in the world, as just about every major country has ‘produced’ or ‘exported’ at least one terrorist.” But she did offer the statistic after mentioning “terrorists,” so the dots were there for the connecting.
None of these comments by themselves would be truly awful. It’s valid to be concerned about terrorists coming through the southern border, because it’s always a possibility! But it’s impossible to separate these quotes from Trump’s and Pence’s own false claims.
“We have terrorists coming in through the southern border,” Trump said Dec. 26, despite numerous fact checks rebutting this claim. “We have the terrorists also coming in, fellas, through the southern border. Because you know why? It was always the easiest.”
(Apparently it’s not the easiest, given that there’s no evidence terrorists are attempting it.)
With Trump and cable-news talkers perpetuating this false narrative, the likes of Pompeo, Scalise and Nielsen could offer clarity. But that doesn’t fit with the administration’s political aims. And the big casualty is a warped sense of the actual threats this country faces.