The Road to Jan 6 Final

'Terrorists' at the Border? To Please Donald Trump, Homeland Security Tweaked Reports

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

Continual role-changes and chaos at the Department of Homeland Security essentially destroyed the department's ability to secure the homeland. On November 15, for example, Chad Wolf was stripped of power. A federal judge in New York City ruled that Wolf was unlawfully serving as the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, violating the rules of succession and the Vacancies Reform Act. His orders, therefore, the judge said, particularly those relating to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, were "not an exercise of legal authority," nullifying the Trump administration's suspension of the program.

It was the latest court ruling against Donald Trump's attempt to undo the Obama-era program that shielded about 650,000 young immigrants who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children from being deported. Earlier in June, the Supreme Court dismissed the administration's attempt to cancel DACA, saying that Trump's reasoning was "arbitrary and capricious." President-elect Joe Biden had already announced that he planned to reinstate DACA and reverse other Trump administration immigration actions.

Wolf, a fierce Trump loyalist, had risen from chief of staff at TSA to deputy chief of staff, to being acting chief of staff before moving to the secretary's office and becoming Chief of Staff to Kirstjen Nielsen, all in the first year of Donald Trump's presidency. He then became acting Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Strategy, Policy, and Plans and then the Senior Official Performing the duties of the Undersecretary, the political commissar of the department. While working for the new secretary, he was point man on immigration and the border wall.

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Thousands of "suspected terrorists" tried to enter the U.S., claimed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, inaccurately. Here, she listens as President Donald Trump answers questions about family separation policy on June 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty

Nielsen soon stumbled over her claims about how many terrorists had crossed the southern border, trying to justify the wall. She said that 3,755 "known and suspected terrorists" had been intercepted, and that an average of 10 individuals a day on the terrorist watch list were trying to enter the United States.

"I'd argue probably 98 percent of people that want to come here want hope, opportunity, liberty, freedom and all the things we may even take for granted ourselves," Fox News' Sean Hannity said in an interview of Nielsen. "But it's a 2 percent I worry about ... There are instances that you can confirm that you know of terrorists that have tried to cross our southern border and we've apprehended them."

"Yes, Sean," Nielsen answered, "and we've talked about the thousands—the thousands of terror watchlist individuals who traveled through our hemisphere last year. To pretend there's not a danger on an unsecured border, on an open border, is just ridiculous. It belies common sense."

But the 3,755 number referred to all individuals of interest in fiscal year 2017, and not just those already on the watchlist. Most of them attempted to travel by air to the U.S., or had applied for visas and never traveled anywhere, and the vast majority didn't try to enter on the southern border. Moreover, the 3,755 number became muddled with more than 3,000 "special interest aliens"—individuals with suspicious travel patterns who may pose a national security risk—that the border patrol encountered at the border.

The Department and the White House dug in their heels to justify the border wall, even as new information indicated that a total of six people on the terrorist watchlist had actually been encountered at the southern border in FY2017. Three had crossed. As Brian Murphy, the DHS analyst who supplied the actual numbers, complained about the manipulation by the Trump-appointed leadership, Wolf and others discussed how they could fire him. He was soon excluded from meetings and later emerged as a whistleblower.

Nielsen resigned. The Senate-confirmed Undersecretary for National Protection was next in line to be the acting secretary, but the department installed the Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, as Acting Secretary.

In June 2019, Wolf, as acting undersecretary, testified before Congress that "our Nation faces persistent threats and a dynamic threat environment.

"As we look at attacks since 2014, what we see is four-fifths of those are domestic terrorism-related attacks here in the homeland. About one-fifth, or a little under one-fifth are what we call homegrown violent extremist (HVE) attacks, that deal more with a foreign ideology."

Wolf said that identifying perpetrators of domestic terrorism "and racially motivated extremists," deciding how to intervene, and how homeland security could "counter the narratives" on social media, were the tasks as the department moved forward.

But Wolf and DHS kept busy changing offices. And the department's focus actually stayed on the Donald Trump-pleasing issues of immigrants and the border wall. Within months, McAleenan also departed. Wolf would be acting Secretary of Homeland Security. This was just days before the Senate actually confirmed Wolf to be Undersecretary, which allowed him to be sworn in. His appointment was illegal, as it occurred before Senate confirmation of Wolf as Undersecretary. Many experts and former government officials argued that appointing him in the first place from a non-Senate confirmed position was unconstitutional. And again, under the rules, he was not the senior-most official of the department, thereby making his appointment contrary to the law.

Wolf's claim to fame in 2020, before he disappeared from the public scene after the election, was picking a fight with New York State. He revoked New York residents' ability to participate in Global Entry and other Trusted Traveler programs in response to the state's "sanctuary" immigration policies. The case went to the courts where Trump administration lawyers admitted that DHS had made false statements to justify the exclusion. The department then removed the Global Entry restrictions.

Congress badgered Wolf and the department to focus more on the issues that mattered. But it wasn't domestic terrorism they were pushing for: it was protecting the country against COVID. And even there, with COVID raging, Wolf focused on Russian disinformation, especially in dispelling rumors of a national shutdown, which he blamed on Moscow.

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary, Chad Wolf, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on August 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C., to answer questions about the use of federal agents during protests in Portland, Oregon. Wolf was one of the DHS officials mentioned in a whistleblower complaint filed with the DHS Office of Inspector General on Tuesday. ALEX WONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Though the department found itself on the outs with the growing anti-vaxxer movement, it roared back in mid-2020, intervening in the George Floyd and racial justice protests that sprung up across America. Whistleblower Murphy again complained about pressure to focus on Antifa and "anarchist" groups rather than white supremacist groups—including pressure on him to modify intelligence reports to harmonize them with what President Trump was saying. By November, homeland security was irrelevant.