Exclusive: Intelligence Report Refutes Donald Trump's Claim Terrorists Are Pouring Across the U.S.-Mexico Border

Central American migrants rest by trains in Ixtepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico on April 26, 2019. - Since October, tens thousands of Central Americans and Cubans have traversed Mexico in so-called "caravans" in the hope of obtaining sanctuary in the United States. FRANCISCO RAMOS/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and administration officials have claimed repeatedly that terrorists were pouring into the United States through Mexico, suggesting individual members were hiding among the tens of thousands of migrants traveling to the southern border in search of asylum as their countries experience surging gang violence and volatile government institutions.

But a new intelligence assessment of the southwest border obtained by Newsweek refutes the long-standing allegation and shows the terrorist claim made by Trump and others is mostly overstated.

The new report is part of a trove of new operational documents used by U.S. Army North, the lead military command responsible for overseeing the Defense Department's support mission on the southwest border. While unclassified, the material is law enforcement sensitive and only for official use by interagency partners working to bolster security and curtail the flow of illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Newsweek redacted personal identifiable information from the document before publication. The U.S. Army intelligence assessment can be read in its entirety at the bottom of this article.

Dated from mid-April, the Joint Force Land Component Commander Threat Working Group wrote the most likely course of action at the southwest border would be continued border crossings and historic exploitation norms from transnational criminal organizations, referring to the Mexican drug cartels. However, little to no terrorist or foreign intelligence exploitation was expected.

The "most likely course of action" assessment, commonly known by the acronym MLCOA, is used by both the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies to evaluate the intentions of individuals and organizations through available information.

The new assessment is similar to an October 2018 report obtained by Newsweek showing limited exploitation by transnational criminal organizations and no terrorist infiltration of the United States via Mexico. The October report aligned with a State Department report issued a month previously in September 2018, which found "no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups had established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States."

But the claim that terrorists have been entering the country via Mexico has been used by the Trump administration as a central justification for building a wall along the southwest border. U.S. officials have not provided or cited evidence to support the the claim that terrorists have been infiltrating the country through the southern border.

On the evening of January 3, Fox News pundit Sean Hannity asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director, about the latest Homeland Security apprehensions at the southern border: "We've been able to apprehend 3,700 people that we have identified as having ties to terror.

"There's lots of risks associated. The narcotics risk itself has enormous implications for people inside the United States. There are lots of things that come across that southern border that we need to get control over, and President Trump is determined to make that happen," Pompeo said. "It includes the risk that we have terrorists come across that border."

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (L), Vice President Mike Pence (R), House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) (4th L) and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (2nd L) listen in the Rose Garden of the White House on January 4, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The next day, Trump addressed the White House press corps from the Rose Garden and claimed, "We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that's probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and they make a left."

The terrorists coming over the border claim was repeated during the same Rose Garden press gaggle by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

But three days later on January 7, NBC News reported data obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that showed the agency had encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on federal government watchlists as either known or suspected terrorists. The low figure stood in stark contrast to the number touted by the Trump administration, members of Congress and conservative pundits.

In January, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made a misleading claim on Fox News Sunday, saying, "We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border."

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway downplayed Sanders' assertion as "an unfortunate misstatement." Conway acknowledged at the time that most of the nearly 4,000 terrorists apprehended in fiscal 2017 were attempting to enter at airports, not the southwest border, according to a report from Homeland Security.

An individual appearing on U.S. government watchlists does not mean the individual is a terrorist; has ties to terrorism or can be criminally charged under terrorism statutes. Instead, these migrants, known as special interest aliens, are added to the list based on an analysis of perceived behavior and travel patterns through "special interest countries," such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Somalia among others, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Nicholas Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Trump and President Barack Obama wrote in January that "There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States. It simply isn't true." He added in a piece for Just Security that there was a more significant threat from homegrown terrorism.

Contacted by Newsweek, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.

Violence Toward Defense Department Personnel Could Increase

What is new from the mid-April intelligence assessment is what U.S. Army North predicts will be the most dangerous course of action, or MDCOA, at the southwest border.

The assessment predicts border crossings would increase, with apprehensions of migrants surging from current figures. The Joint Force Land Component Commander Threat Working Group at U.S. Army North also indicates Mexican cartels would likely modify their movements and procedures to counter the surge of additional security forces to maintain the flow of organizational revenue from both narcotics and human trafficking.

The report adds: "These changes may include an increase in violence against Department of Defense personnel."

An MDCOA assessment is used by both the U.S. military and intelligence communities to estimate what an individual or organization might reasonably do to cause the most negative impact on U.S. operations, but given the presence of other factors, they are not likely to carry out.

The MDCOA for the October 2018 report obtained by Newsweek predicted that migrant caravans surging in their numbers as terrorists and foreign intelligence services exploited the U.S.-Mexico border issue. The statement added that Mexican cartels would grow frustrated by Defense Department efforts to curtail the revenue streams of their organizations resulting in cross border engagements.

El Paso Sector Border Protection Chief Agent Aaron Hull briefs U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the Under Secretary for Management for the Department of Homeland Security Claire M. Grady during a visit to the U.S. Southern Border, Feb. 23, 2019. U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/DoD

On Monday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan approved a Homeland Security request for assistance to send additional U.S. troops to the border in response to the humanitarian crisis at the border with new relaxed rules on forces interacting with migrants entering the country, according to The Washington Post.

Earlier this month, Newsweek obtained an operations order that appeared to show the Pentagon was ready to send between 9,000 and 10,000 additional troops to the U.S. border, but a Defense Department spokesman said the document Newsweek obtained was a draft copy and if Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan approved any Homeland Security request, the number of additional troops would range between 300 and 500.

A week and a half later, The Associated Press reported 300 troops would be heading to the border, with The Washington Post laying out the plans for the Pentagon to provide military lawyers, cooks and bus drivers to the southwest border as the surge of migrants continue to enter the country.

Roughly 2,800 active duty forces currently support the border mission. Of those forces, 1,200 work on the Mobile Surveillance Camera mission, with about 1,000 service members dedicated to fortifying ports of entry in Texas and New Mexico. The other 200 personnel serve as part of a crisis response force, with the remainder assigned to headquarters and logistics support. About 2,100 National Guardsmen are attached to the border mission as well.

U.S. military planners also extended the deployment time for 19 different units, whose specialties range from infantry and artillery units to aviation squadrons and military police at the southwest border, according to previous reporting by Newsweek.

Internal Pentagon documents obtained by The Washington Post show the requested expansion of military activity along the border would cost an estimated $21.9 million through September 30 when fiscal year 2019 ends.

Statistics provided by the White House said Border Patrol agents have seen a 374 percent increase in the number of migrant families arriving at the southwest border compared with the same period last year, surging from 39,975 to 189,584.

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