Experts file suit against Trump administration demanding correction of false terrorism report
Report spreads government disinformation to attack immigrant communities
On May 3, 2018, Protect Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice, Michael F. Crowley, and Benjamin Wittes filed a complaint in federal court against the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security under the Information Quality Act, demanding the retraction or correction of a misleading report on the national origin of terrorists.
On January 16, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report entitled “Executive Order 13780: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, Initial Section 11 Report”. The report was compiled and released in conjunction with the so-called “Travel Ban.” On February 8, Protect Democracy and several other experts filed a petition under the Information Quality Act (IQA), identifying a series of fundamental flaws in the report that violate the government’s own guidelines, and asking DOJ and DHS to retract or correct the report. The suit is filed in the District of Massachusetts.
“Democracy requires open debate based on shared facts,” said Jamila Benkato, Counsel at Protect Democracy. “The Administration’s report is the opposite of shared facts. Our government issued a false report using flawed methodology that violates its own rules, for the sole purpose of justifying immigration-restricting policies that it already decided upon. This report is being used to attack vulnerable communities and poison democratic debate. By spreading disinformation, our own government is undermining our democracy.”
“Every time this White House has tried to justify its discriminatory immigration policies, it has presented incomplete or misleading information,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The reason they make up or misrepresent the facts is simple: evidence that we can predict terrorism by looking at individuals’ national origin simply doesn’t exist. The White House should retract this report. Policies should be based on proof, not prejudice.”
According to the IQA and implementing regulations, DOJ and DHS reports are required to meet certain standards of “quality,” “objectivity,” “utility,” and “integrity” when providing information to the public. The report falls far short of these standards.
As many others have pointed out, the report is misleading, biased, methodologically unsound, and often just flat out wrong. The Trump Administration has repeatedly invoked and relied on the report as justifying the more restrictive immigration policy that it favors. President Trump himself has tweeted about the report, doubling down on an inaccurate statement that he made during a February 28, 2017 address to Congress: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.” On April 24, the report was used by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson to make false statements about immigrants.
The Trump administration’s use of inaccurate data to justify banning people of certain nationalities from traveling to the U.S. is part of a larger pattern in which power-hungry leaders use disinformation to create a scapegoat — whether it be a political rival or a marginalized community — to help garner support for themselves and their policies. In autocratic regimes, the government uses propaganda to manipulate the public opinion. In Hungary, for example, autocratic leader Viktor Orban has used disinformation to launch a campaign against Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, pushing a “stop Soros” bill to shut down NGOs and plastering the country with billboards attacking him. In Turkey, Recep Erdogan’s government has used disinformation to neutralize political opposition, falsely labelling the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party as a terrorist group and jailing its leadership.
“Authoritarian regimes often obfuscate truth by publishing false information under a veneer of objectivity,” said New York University Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat. “Government disinformation threatens our democracy. Government disinformation misleads the public and skews the public debate over critical policy issues. I’ve studied authoritarian regimes around the world — false and misleading reports like the one at issue here are something to be very worried about in America too.”
The IQA provides a remedy for such disinformation, by ensuring that the government provides its citizens with accurate information so that they can make well-informed decisions about who and what to support.
About the Plaintiffs
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country’s systems of democracy and justice.
Michael Crowley is a former Senior Policy Analyst with the Office of Management and Budget, and currently serves as a Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center.
Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Editor in Chief of Lawfare.
About the Information Quality Act. The IQA, enacted into law in 2000, requires agencies to adopt policies and procedures “for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.” See Pub L. No. 106-554 § 515(a). Pursuant to the IQA, DOJ and DHS have adopted guidelines that require them to adhere to certain standards of “quality,” “objectivity,” “utility,” and “integrity” when providing information to the public.