To justify why it’s suspending the U.S. refugee program, President Donald Trump’s new executive order states that 300 people who entered the US as refugees are now the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the FBI, a claim that was met immediately with skepticism. Just Security’s Faiza Patel offers some critical context below.

The executive order states:

The Attorney General has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A Q&A prepared by the Department of Homeland Security also states:

Why is a suspension of the refugee program warranted? Some of those who have entered the United States as refugees have also proved to be threats to our national security. For example, in October 2014, an individual admitted to the United States as a refugee from Somalia, and who later became a naturalized U.S. citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in connection with a plot to set off a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported that approximately 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations.

The Trump administration provided no information on where these refugees came from. Plus, there is no context. Three hundred refugees of how many total refugees? And how big is the total pool of people who are subjects of counterterrorism investigations. The White House provided a numerator with no denominator, making it a fairly meaningless statistic.

Soon after Trump signed the new Order, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker columnist, Glenn Kessler urged reporters to be skeptical of this claim until more contextual information is provided.


So for journalists reporting on this, or others who wish to understand how to view this statistic, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, Faiza notes that it’s important to know whether the word “investigation” is actually referring to an “assessment” or a full investigation. “An assessment is an early stage investigation which does not require suspicion of criminal activity, but rather can be started by an agent with an ‘authorized purpose,'” Faiza says. “The overwhelming majority of assessments do not result in full investigations — not surprising because they are not based on facts.” 

This New York Times article from 2011 shows that from December 2008 to March 2009, only 3.7 percent of 11,667 assessments led to full investigations.

The number of investigations leading to successful prosecutions is even smaller. According to Justice Department statisticsthere were 580 terrorism and terrorism-related convictions from Sept 11, 2001 through the end 2014. That’s roughly 41 to 42 per year, so about 10 percent of full investigations lead to a conviction (assuming the numbers obtained by the NYT are representative of the rate at which investigations lead to convictions).

Also of note is the fact that terrorism-related suspicions can cover a broad category of offenses, including immigration violations, according to Faiza. “These may have started as terrorism investigations, but we cannot know whether they actually have anything to do with terrorism.”

Faiza’s final point: It goes without saying that just because there is an investigation, that does not mean terrorist activity has been established.

Update: Professor Adam Cox identifies another point: The Justice Department apparently told reporters on Monday that the 300 people include individuals being investigated for pro-Islamic State positions, which is a far cry from a criminal offence:

For more information on what the data tells us about immigration and terrorism, see this excellent post from Andrew Lindsay for the Brennan Center for Justice.
Image: Getty/Mark Wilson