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What Emergency? (Opinion)

March 14, 2019 (5 min read)


Gen. Michael Hayden (ret.) is the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

Matthew G. Olsen is former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"We served at the highest levels of the U.S. national security community. We’re here to tell you that the president’s claim of an emergency along the border is bogus.

The Senate will vote this week to block President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to divert Pentagon funds to build a wall at the southern border. The vote—which will likely have the support of several Republicans—is poised to be a startling rebuke of one of the president’s highest-profile executive actions. But beyond the political response to this decision, what’s remarkable is that so few believe there is a real national security justification for declaring an emergency on the southern border.

That’s because an informed and honest assessment of the facts demonstrates that there is no national security crisis. We offer this assessment as former government officials with decades of experience in security, intelligence and law enforcement, serving Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

The president and administration officials, however, have at various times pointed to “thousands” of terrorists seeking to cross the southern border and to an “invasion” of criminals and drugs to conjure up a crisis and to justify invoking emergency authorities. These claims are false.

First, on terrorism. In January, the White House asserted that the Department of Homeland Security had identified nearly 4,000 suspected terrorists at the southern border last year. This false assertion was quickly debunked, but it echoed prior falsehoods by the president and vice president about the supposedly large number of suspected terrorists seeking to cross the southern border.

In fact, there is no evidence that terrorists are intent on exploiting the border with Mexico to enter the United States. A State Department report last year found “no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.” The report stated, “The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”

The overwhelming majority of encounters between U.S. law enforcement and individuals on the terrorist watchlist—those who are known or suspected terrorists—involve people seeking to travel here by air. In 2017, the government identified 2,554 watchlisted individuals trying to enter the United States, but only 335 of those individuals were traveling by land. And, according to a government report, Customs and Border Protection agents encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U.S-Mexico border in the first half of 2018 whose names were on the watchlist. 

Six, not 4,000.

The administration also has made misleading claims about “special interest aliens” encountered at the border, claiming—again falsely—that these individuals have demonstrated ties to terrorism. The designation “special interest alien,” broadly relates to travel patterns and country of origin, which can potentially raise security concerns, but the designation does not mean that an individual is connected to terrorism.

A significant danger with these false claims about terrorists at the border is that they distract us from the real threats we face. While border security is critically important, the United States has effectively ramped up its defenses since the 9/11 attacks—including the use of a screening and watchlisting system for travelers—and has made the country a much harder target for terrorist operatives seeking to enter it. That’s why groups like ISIS have sought to inspire and recruit operatives already in the United States to carry out attacks. That’s where counterterrorism efforts in the country should be focused—at real threats, not inflated ones.

The president’s claims about an invasion at the southern border are also not credible. He has warned of an “onslaught of illegal aliens.” But the number of immigrants apprehended for crossing illegally has been steadily declining, from 1.6 million in 2000 to fewer than 400,000 in 2018—that’s close to the 40-year low.

And contrary to the president’s claims, a wall would have little effect on the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Government studies repeatedly have shown that illegal drugs enter the country primarily through legal crossing points.

Violent crime, the flow of illegal drugs and the scourge of gangs are all real problems, deserving of serious attention and resources. But the administration’s efforts to concoct a crisis on the border in order to build a wall just distracts from our ability to address these important problems effectively. In fact, last month, when the nation’s leading intelligence officials, including the FBI director, provided their annual assessment of the threats facing the country, none said there was a national security crisis on the border.

It is true that immigration patterns have changed dramatically over the past few years. Rampant violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala triggered a mass exodus of refugees beginning in 2014. Immigrants from Central America now account for the largest share of those seeking entry in the United States, and this group, which includes many families, has been the target of the administration’s family separation and punitive asylum policies. But families seeking refuge at our border do not constitute a national security crisis. To the contrary, the United States today has the necessary tools and authorities to vet and process those seeking protection at the border in a secure and humane manner.

Amid the myriad legal challenges and political debates over the president’s declaration of an emergency in order to build a wall, the underlying facts are not in dispute: There’s no national security justification to support this decision."