WASHINGTON — A new whistleblower complaint alleges that in late 2018 and early 2019 former senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security sought to inflate the publicly reported number of known or suspected terrorists crossing the border, in a move to increase support for a border wall.
In early 2019, a DHS spokeswoman pushed NBC News to retract an article based on accurate figures the agency had disclosed in a document to Congress in the months prior that were far lower than the nearly 4,000 in a year the administration had been citing publicly.
The January 2019 NBC News article reported that, contrary to those public statements by Trump administration officials, only six immigrants who were known or suspected terrorists had been encountered at the southern border in the first half of fiscal year 2018.
At the time, administration officials were repeating the 4,000 figure in an effort to justify the government shutdown over Trump's border wall, and the lower, more accurate figure undercut their argument.
That 2019 NBC News article was based on non-publicized figures provided by Customs and Border Protection to Congress in May 2018.
Before publication, then-DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman told NBC News that publishing the figures would put border agents in harm's way. At the time, NBC News consulted former DHS officials who were adamant this was not the case.
Waldman is now press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence and is married to White House adviser Stephen Miller, known as the architect of the administration's anti-immigration policies.
After publication, Waldman told NBC News that the figures provided to Congress and reported by NBC News were inaccurate and pushed for a full retraction, saying that otherwise she would put out a statement from DHS discrediting the article. Waldman said DHS had different, correct figures, but the agency had no plans to provide them to Congress.
NBC News did not retract the article, and DHS never published a statement discrediting it. According to Congressional sources, CBP never revised the figures.
Waldman, now Miller, declined to provide an on-the-record comment to NBC News for this article about her handling of the 2019 NBC News report. DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Jan. 4, 2019, three days before NBC News published its report, the White House prepared a briefing sheet that said 3,755 known or suspected terrorists were stopped from entering the United States in fiscal year 2017.
From the White House driveway that day, Sarah Sanders, who was then White House press secretary, told reporters CBP had picked up nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists in the last year that "came across our southern border."
DHS circulated the sheet to reporters as part of its own briefing with reporters. The sheet did not specify where the terrorists were stopped and, according to the whistleblower complaint, the figure conflated "known or suspected terrorists" with "special interest aliens."
Two days later, Sanders walked back her statement and said she did not know how many came from airports versus crossing land borders.
The next day, Jan. 7, NBC News published its article saying only six known or suspected terrorists had been intercepted at the southern border during the first half of fiscal 2018.
Brian Murphy, a former intelligence official at DHS, alleged in his whistleblower complaint that he was removed from a March 5, 2019 meeting after showing then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that the 3,755 figure referred to special interest aliens, which are designated as such simply for their country of origin, not known ties to terrorism.
Murphy alleges that he was attempting to correct Nielsen after she told Congress in a Dec. 20, 2018 hearing that 3,755 individuals known or suspected terrorists entered the country, rather than special interest aliens. But Nielsen's attorney James Wareham said Murphy's claim on this point is false.
The transcript of the December 2018 testimony shows Nielsen does in fact differentiate between the two categories, contrary to what the whistleblower said.
"What I can tell you is we stopped 3,000 special interest aliens at the border last year, we stop 10 known and suspected terrorists from attempting to travel to the United States each year," Nielsen said, according to a transcript of her exchange with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Wareham said in a statement to NBC News, "Mr. Murphy's allegations about Secretary Nielsen's testimony are demonstrably false. She never represented that thousands of known or suspected terrorists (KTSs) crossed the Southern Border. [His attorney] is aware of this and I expect him to correct it immediately."