Homeland Security Uses ‘Crisis Action Team’ In 1st Trump Travel Ban

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Above Photo: Records reflect confusion on the front lines about how to implement the travel ban order and show that DHS officials deemed the situation a “crisis.” | Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

When protests and widespread confusion broke out at airports across the U.S. after President Donald Trump issued his first travel ban executive order last January, White House officials scoffed at the scenes of turmoil and insisted the president’s plan was smoothly moving into place.

“It really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level,” a senior administration official told reporters two days after Trump signed the directive. Top Trump adviser Stephen Miller boasted to CBS that the roll-out was “efficient, orderly [and] enormously successful.”

However, Department of Homeland Security records obtained by POLITICO reflect confusion on the front lines about how to implement the order and show that DHS officials deemed the situation a “crisis” requiring a high-level response.

“The National Operations Center (NOC) Crisis Action Team (CAT) activated at 0800 this morning to assist in facilitating DHS response and reactions to the Presidential Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nations,” an email sent to senior DHS officials on Jan. 29 and released last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit said.

Asked about DHS declaring a “crisis” over implementation of Trump’s initial order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, a DHS official said his agency followed its protocols for handling complex events.

“The crisis action team (CAT) is a mechanism to ensure efficient coordination and communication during events and matters that involve multiple federal, state, local, or private sector response efforts,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “The CAT is activated in response to a large-scale response effort to provide information and decision products to senior leadership.”

White House spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on whether the administration’s public messaging was at odds with what was taking place behind the scenes.

A previously released but unreported message from then-DHS chief of staff Kirstjen Nielsen to other top DHS officials referred twice to a “war room” handling issues related to the Jan. 27 order, which was partially blocked by judges within hours of its issuance and largely halted worldwide by a more sweeping order issued by a federal judge in Seattle on Jan. 29.

After a stint as deputy White House chief of staff, Nielsen was confirmed in October as secretary of homeland security.

Some of the records released in response to the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a POLITICO reporter and the pro-transparency James Madison Project depict internal confusion about the application of the initial executive order to various groups like U.S. green card holders, Canadian residents who are citizens of the restricted countries and refugees holding approved travel documents, but no passports.

As airlines pressed DHS for answers on behalf of passengers trying to board flights in the days after the order, officials grumbled that they were sometimes receiving contradictory guidance from top Trump administration officials.

“We got a memo from the White House saying one thing and now the Press Secretary said another,” a senior Customs and Border Patrol official wrote to an American Airlines executive in a Feb. 1 email explaining why the agency had just abruptly withdrawn guidance sent to major international air carriers.

DHS emails show that officials dealing with airlines and airports were told to direct all questions to a single phone number in Washington, D.C., but at least one airline executive said the hotline was unresponsive.

“The number was not answered yesterday all day and is now ‘busy’ continuously (not in use?) – so unfortunately not helpful,” an official with Swiss-based PrivatAir complained to a contact at the Transportation Security Administration.

A report by DHS’ internal watchdog on implementation of the first travel ban order is currently being blocked from public release by DHS management.

Shortly before retiring late last year, Inspector General John Roth told lawmakers that he wanted to release the report to Congress and the public, but DHS officials cited concerns that the review contains information that could invade privileged attorney-client conversations and intrude on executive branch policy deliberations.

DHS officials said they’ve referred the disclosure and privilege issues to the Justice Department for its input.

Roth did disclose his top-line findings, which asserted that Homeland Security officials violated two court orders issued in response to Trump’s directive and that a lack of notice to top Customs and Border Protection managers left them “caught by surprise” as they scrambled to implement the order.

DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton defended the agency’s effort to carry out the directive and to comply with court orders emerging from a flurry of lawsuits.

“The department’s many officials conducted themselves professionally, and in a legal manner, as they implemented an executive order issued by the president,” Houlton said in November, reacting to Roth’s letter about the unreleased report.

After failing to get the key injunction against the first travel ban lifted, Trump decided to withdraw the original directive and issue a new one.

The revamped order, announced in March, dropped Iraq, but kept Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on the restricted list. Large swaths of that order were also blocked nationwide by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.

In June, the Supreme Court partially lifted those injunctions, allowing Trump to deny visas to travelers without family, business or educational ties to the U.S., but leaving those with such connections exempt from the ban.

In September, Trump issued yet another order imposing a varied set of “tailored” travel restrictions on citizens of eight countries, six of which are majority-Muslim.

Litigation over the September order is continuing, but the Supreme Court issued a temporary ruling last month allowing the administration to implement the new directive in its entirety while the legal battle plays out.