As is my usual wont, I was watching Morning Joe today and quickly grew tired of the new White House talking point about how secure our vetting process for refugees is. They had Keith Ellison (D – MN 5) on during the final half hour to talk about how we all need to embrace the Muslim world and not play into the hands of the terrorists and defeat them with love and acceptance or something. None of that is terribly surprising coming from the congressman, but he got the panel headed off on a fresh jag talking about our refugee vetting. Most of the panelists were polite enough to acknowledge that state governors opposed to allowing Syrian immigrants into their states had valid concerns and deserved to be fully informed about the vetting that was going on. But that was followed up with a conversation which at least strongly implied that the vetting was pretty much fine and dandy and the real problem was that the governors were simply ignorant of how wonderful it is.
This has been repeated by many White House surrogates in recent days, most of them quoting a statement from Josh Earnest in September which sought to calm the waters. But the cheerful face being painted on this question by the administration is at odds with what many of their own experts have been saying for months. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the people responsible for seeing that the vetting is done properly have more than a few questions about it themselves.
Several high-level administration officials have warned in recent months just how challenging this can be. While they say U.S. security measures are much better than in the past, vetting Syrian refugees poses a quandary: How do you screen people from a war-torn country that has few criminal and terrorist databases to check? …
“I don’t, obviously, put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees, so that’s a huge concern of ours,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a security industry conference in September, using another name for the Islamic State. He added that the government has “a pretty aggressive program” for screening refugees but that he is less confident about European nations.
While I appreciate Clapper’s enthusiasm, calling our program “pretty aggressive” isn’t all that comforting. Neither is saying that ours is better than Europe’s because that’s setting the bar pretty low. Clapper wasn’t alone in his concerns, however.
FBI Director James Comey added in congressional testimony last month that “a number of people who were of serious concern” slipped through the screening of Iraq War refugees, including two arrested on terrorism-related charges. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less than excellent vetting,” he said.
Although Comey said the process has since “improved dramatically,” Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. “If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” he said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
When we accept refugees from countries where there are at least nominal public records and law enforcement there are no guarantees, but there’s a chance of finding things out. This is particularly true if the refugee in question has spent any time in a stronger, European ally nation and potentially run into trouble with their own law enforcement. Fingerprints, photographs, family histories… any of these might turn up some information. But just as we found when we first entered Iraq, some areas have very little profiling information of that sort. And when a nation falls into chaos, all sorts of records can be lost or intentionally destroyed.
So what’s left for us to work with in Syria? And who is the trusted partner we’re supposed to work with in ferreting out all of that information? Lacking anything other than a dodgy set of identification papers there is very little to go on beyond the word of the subject and how trustworthy they seem during an interview. How much faith to you want to place in that when the cost of being wrong is so high? As with everything else in the terrorism game, we need 100% accuracy to remain safe and the terrorists only have to be right once. I have no doubt that there are many, many families who didn’t want anything to do with the war going on in Syria and who fled for their lives. They clearly need help. But it’s never been solely the responsibility of the United States to save everyone and you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Pushing for hundreds of thousands of these people to flood into the United States next year in the name of being politically correct isn’t just foolish… it’s potentially suicidal.