Justice Department says its report defending travel ban "could be criticized"

By Kate Smith

/ CBS News

Mom can't visit dying son due to travel ban

The Department of Justice has acknowledged problems with several facts in a report last year that was designed to defend a ban on travel from some foreign countries. However, the DOJ said it would not be retracting or correcting the study.

In January 2018, the DOJ issued a report called "Executive Order 13780: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States Initial Section 11 Report." It provided a defense for President Donald Trump's executive order that limited travel to the U.S. from countries deemed connected to terrorism.

The executive order was challenged in courts and revised several times, but the most recent version was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018 and restricts entry into the U.S. from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

The 11-page study, commissioned as part of the executive order, linked immigration and terrorism. Less than a month after its publication, the report was challenged in a petition by Protect Democracy and several research groups, including The Brookings Institution and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The report's primary conclusion was that 73 percent of individuals convicted in U.S. courts of international terrorism-related offenses between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2016 were foreign-born. But it failed to note that those convictions weren't necessarily related to events that happened in the United States, said Ben Berwick, a Department of Justice alum and current counsel for Protect Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog group. The figure was actually in reference to the percentage of foreign-born individuals who had been brought to the U.S. to be convicted of terrorism acts internationally.

"It immediately jumped out to me as more of a propaganda piece than a factual report, which is exactly what it turned out to be by their own admission," Berwick said in a telephone interview with CBS News on Friday.

In another instance, the agency's report claimed that in a six-year window, 70,000 immigrants in the U.S. had been convicted for gender-based violence, like sexual assault and domestic violence. In fact, there had been 70,000 gender-based offenses by immigrants in a 55-year window.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Allen, the author of letter, dismissed the mischaracterizations, claiming they were "mere editorials errors" but added that the DOJ "appreciates being made aware of such errors so that they will not be repeated."

In their petition, the watchdog and research groups found nine major areas of concern in the DOJ's report, including source transparency issues, misquoted studies and "cherry-picked and unrepresentative examples."

The DOJ says that "information in the Report could be criticized."

"This is representative of this administration's sometimes blasé attitude towards the truth," Berwick said. "It's clear that this report was issued to advance a particular policy agenda, regardless of what's actually the truth."

In the petition, filed in February 2018 to the federal agencies that oversee immigration, said the misleading nature and inaccuracies put it at odds with the Information Quality Act, a 2001 measure that holds federal agencies responsible for disseminating accurate, objective information.

In other words, truthfulness is more than a good idea for government reports. It's required by law.

The petition was rejected and the groups fought back with an official administrative appeal. There's also a lawsuit pending in Massachusetts against the report by the same watchdogs which had been put on pause while the Department of Justice reviewed the administrative appeal. Now that the agency has rejected the appeal, Protect Democracy hasn't decided yet what its next steps will be, Berwick said.

A call and email to the Department of Justice were not immediately returned. The agency's website said that media requests may not be handled until the government reopens from the partial federal shutdown.

First published on January 4, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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