â€śIt really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level,â€ť a senior administration official said in January of President Donald Trumpâ€™s executive order banning entry into the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. In fact, the rollout of the first travel ban was marked by chaos. Stories surfaced of travelers being turned back at airports, detained without access to lawyers and barred from boarding flights to the United States. The Department of Homeland Securityâ€™s inspector general began an investigation in response.
Now the independent watchdogâ€™s investigation is complete - but itâ€™s unclear how much of it will see the light of day. In a troubling move, DHS has spent almost two months determining whether or not the information in the report can be released to the public.
Usually when the DHS inspector general concludes an investigation, the department quickly reviews whether the report contains any sensitive information that should not be released. Yet according to Inspector General John Roth, DHS has yet to decide the status of the travel ban report provided to department officials in early October. On Nov. 20, Roth alerted lawmakers of his concern that DHS may prevent his office from fully releasing the report.
The trouble comes from the departmentâ€™s interpretation of the â€śdeliberative process privilegeâ€ť - the principle that the government may often keep its internal conversations confidential. Roth writes that DHS may intend to invoke the privilege with unusual breadth, barring public release of large sections of the report. Such a move would be highly unusual and, according to Roth, unprecedented during his three years as inspector general, during which he published many reports including information on internal deliberations. It could set a dangerous precedent by limiting the inspector generalâ€™s power to hold government agencies publicly accountable.
Rothâ€™s description of his reportâ€™s conclusions suggests that Customs and Border Protection officials were placed in the difficult position of enforcing an executive order about which they had â€śvirtually no warningâ€ť and received little guidance. CBP officials appear to have prevented passengers from boarding flights to the United States despite two court orders to the contrary. Yet Roth also writes that CBP â€śattempted in good faith to obey court ordersâ€ť at airports within the United States, allowing travelers to enter the country and providing them with legal counsel. Some officers even paid for food and water for stranded travelers out of their own pocket. Itâ€™s a portrait of chaos, but not nearly as dire as suggested by some early reports of mutiny by CBP officers against the courts.
According to the office of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who requested the initial inspector general investigation, DHS continues to slow-walk the release by mulling over the results of an unusual review of the report by the Justice Department. Thereâ€™s no reason for delay: The department should allow the inspector general to release as much of the report as possible within the normal bounds of government disclosure. Both Congress and the public have a right to know what happened.