The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee has a history of making controversial statements.
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He did it again Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., led off a hearing on the security risks of incoming Syrian refugees by saying the committee would be better served if it looked within at U.S.-born citizens for potential terrorists.
Thompson said the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week illustrated America's more pressing problems with "violent extremism." He suggested that the threats posed by "domestic terrorism" were more acute than those posed by Muslim refugees being sent to the U.S. from Syria.
"Time and time again, I have urged this committee not to have a narrow view of violent extremism, which ignores violent extremist activity of domestic groups," Thompson said.
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"Regrettably, last week’s attacks at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston brought this issue into stark focus," he continued. "Congress, the president, and the Department of Homeland Security need to come together with state and local governments to honestly acknowledge that domestic terrorism is a threat to the safety and security of the American homeland, including the refugees who resettle within our borders. We must move beyond the perceived fears of the unknown and focus on credible threat information and allow the security vetting systems we have in place (for refugees) to work."
After Wednesday's hearing on the security risks posed by Syrian refugees, Thompson sent a letter to Homeland Security Committee Chair Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, asking that he convene hearings on domestic terrorism in the United States.
Thompson criticized his colleagues on the committee who seemed more concerned about terrorists slipping into the ranks of Islamic refugees from war-torn Syria.
He urged them to focus more attention on Americans as the primary threat of launching terrorist attacks. The 70,000 United Nations-certified refugees coming to the U.S. each year should be welcomed, he said. He added that it was mostly U.S. citizens who were leaving the country to fight for ISIL, also called ISIS or the Islamic State. Syrians, he said, were fleeing ISIS and needed a safe haven in America.
"They are the most vulnerable to the violence and know first-hand the cruelty of ISIL and other groups that have brought harm upon their communities," Thompson said. "These refugees, like most others that arrive in the U.S., are fleeing difficult, even life-threatening, situations. The idea that they would be met with suspicion and hate upon arrival in the United States is an affront to the values we uphold and promote."
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"In fact," Thompson added, "the leading demographic of those seeking or joining ISIL in the U.S are U.S.-born citizens, including citizens with no ancestry from majority-Muslim countries."
Congressman's past rants stirred controversy
Thompson made news last year when he appeared on a New Nation of Islam radio show and said Clarence Thomas is an "Uncle Tom," Mitch McConnell is a "racist," and Republicans are only anti-big government and anti-Obamacare because President Obama is black.
In 2011, after a congressional hearing on Islamic radicalization, Thompson said the hearing could be used to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers, the Associated Press reported. He said Congress has a responsibility to make sure its words do not make the problems of Islamic terrorism worse.
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Thompson's latest comments echoed the sentiments of Democrats in the Senate who have called for a more laissez-faire policy on refugees.
Last month 14 U.S. senators, all Democrats led by Richard Durbin of Illinois, Diane Feinstein of California and Al Franken of Minnesota, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to "dramatically increase" the number of Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. citing the brutal conditions from which they are fleeing and America's proud tradition of offering itself as a beacon for the world's poor and oppressed.
The same type of language was used last summer when tens of thousands of unaccompanied alien children, along with many families, surged at the U.S. southern border from Central America.
Children of immigrants at risk of radicalization
Security experts testified Wednesday that the children of Islamic refugees and immigrants tend to have a worse record for being radicalized than the refugees themselves. Such was the case with Hoda Muthana, the 20-year-old daughter of immigrants from Yemen who decided to leave the country late last year, to the surprise of her parents, and become an ISIS bride. Her parents emigrated from Yemen more than 20 years ago and lived peacefully in an upscale subdivision near Birmingham, Alabama. She became radicalized over the Internet, left for Syria via Turkey, and publicly renounced her parents on Twitter.
The Republicans on the committee took issue with Thompson's open-doors approach to refugees, as did the expert witnesses called to testify before the committee.
"Refugees will continue to play a pivotal role in expanding the rich cultural diversity of America, but the risks may be higher due to the high number of fighters and more operatives heading to the West, and the potential for ISIS to use them to gain refugee status," said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp. "I do think it's worse in terms of data management for refugees, rescreening procedures, DNA checks and a few other issues. The U.S. does have a longstanding tradition of offering refuge to people fleeing persecution, but an integral factor is that we have a responsibility to assure they do not present a risk to the West. I think we're after a balance here."
The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the attacks in Garland, Texas, Brussels, Belgium, Ottawa, Canada, at the Boston Marathon, and the 9/11 attacks were all cited by Jones as being committed by Islamic terrorists, as were the recent slaughter of 147 Christians in Kenya and 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. Many foiled operations have been connected to Middle Eastern or African terror groups, such as the arrests in April of four young Somali men from Minnesota who tried repeatedly to leave the country and join ISIS.
The U.S. has imported more than 100,000 Somalis as refugees since the early 1990s. Since 2005 dozens of the Somali refugees brought to the U.S. and children of the refugees have been arrested on charges of providing material support to overseas terrorist organizations.
No records to vet
Syria, like Somalia, has become a failed state where chaos reigns. The U.S. has no access to reliable data on the backgrounds of potential refugees, FBI counter-terrorism experts warned at a previous congressional hearing in February.
"Our human sources (in Syria) are minimal and we don't have a government we can partner with (to vet the refugees) and that's the key thing," said Tom Fuentes, former FBI assistant director, at the June 24 hearing. "If these individuals were not on a database, that's why they're refugees. The children become a problem as well, as we saw in the Somali case, as in the Tsarnaev (Boston bombing) case, children grew up and became radicalized even as their parents were unaware. I know the FBI does not have the ability to really do an adequate vetting on this."
Help refugees 'where they are'
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., asked the panel of experts to put aside for a moment any moral obligations the U.S. may have to take in foreign refugees fleeing violence. Strictly from a security standpoint, Katko asked "does anyone believe we should let the refugees in if we can't vet them?"
No one on the panel – Fuentes, Jones, and Daveed Gartenstein, a senior fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies – said that would be a good idea.
"We do have a moral imperative to help the refugees but we also have a moral imperative to protect U.S. citizens, and therein lies the rub," Katko said. "So my next question is, can we help them somehow without bringing them here?"
Gartenstein said "actually addressing the situation over there is arguably getting more bank for our buck."
There are nearly 4 million Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war. The U.S. is being asked to take in 65,000 over two years. Of the 1,019 Syrians sent to the U.S. since the outbreak of the civil war, 89 percent have been Muslims and 4.5 percent have been Christians with the remainder claiming a hodgepodge of other faiths. Christians have been brutally killed and forced to flee their homes by ISIS, al-Nusra Front and other Sunni rebel groups whereas they and other religious minorities had been protected by the government of President Bashar al-Assad before the war started.
"So that is a drop in the bucket," Gartenstein said. "Jobs here are scarce, they miss a year or more of schooling (as they learn language)."
He said more could be done to help the refugees where they are, particularly in Jordan because most of the refugees there are not in camps.
"Anything you can do over there is advantageous and may actually be, from a humanitarian perspective, the best use of our money," Gartenstein said.
Fuentes agreed. "If you made the camps more livable, the length of time you would be doing those services would also provide an incentive against them becoming terrorists, if we did more for the refugees before they come here, they may be more loyal to the U.S."
Jones said a long-term strategy for Syria is lacking and resettling a small percentage of the refugees falls far short of the humanitarian mark.
"We need to be finding, in addition to taking refugees, ways to wind down the war. Whatever administration comes next, as well as this one, I would encourage them to get a long-term strategy," Jones said. "I would also note that this issue of vetting is significant in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, not just Syria."
Katko said the U.S. can't have "people coming into this country who we're not able to vet. And if there's something we can do over there to help them maybe that's the way forward and I hope we will look at that in the future."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said there were "no easy answers" to the Syrian refugee situation.
"You can try to minimize the risks but there are still going to be considerable risks there."
Yet, King said, he felt something needed to be done to relieve the refugee pressure building in Jordan, one of the America's best allies in the region.
"I think we've raised issues today that there are no clear answers to. But it is in our national interests that something be done to alleviate pressure on Jordan. Now we have to find ways to do it," he said, and that involves finding better ways of vetting the refugees.
King asked the panelists if the refugees could be "tailed" by the FBI once they arrive in the U.S. "Would that violate FBI procedures and are there resources for that?"
Fuentes said no such policy exists at the FBI. "There has to be some sort of criminal activity," before that type of monitoring can be activated. "Right now they have active investigations in every single state," he added. "You could be looking at tens of thousands of potential subjects that there's a reason to follow them, so you have to prioritize, and so the practicality of that in a refugee vetting process I think just doesn't exist."
Rep. Louis Barletta, R-Pa., asked, "Does the U.S. accept risk by accepting refugees from a country that admittedly is an enemy?"
Fuentes said al-Qaida had a different strategy than ISIS. "They wanted the giant attack, but other groups like Hezbollah believe in a different philosophy, death by a thousand cuts, so they were willing to kill four or five at a time in Israel, but they were happy with that because they were able to kill four or five as they were doing everything things. So the average citizen hears about the attack on a bus stop or a café and says 'wait a minute, I go to a café, I ride a bus.' It generates fear. You can't carry out a large one by courier or by remote control. Syrians are not going to be able to come in and launch a major attack but can they come in and do death by a smaller cut? I think we are much more likely to see that type of attack."
The U.S. traditionally accepts the vast majority of the world's displaced persons for permanent resettlement. But in the case of Syria, the U.S. has been slow to jump on board with the United Nations plan for resettlement. Of the more than 130,000 Syrians the U.N. wants to permanently resettle in outside countries, Germany has agreed to take the most at 30,000 followed by Canada with 11,000. The U.N. wants the U.S. to take 65,000 over the next two years but so far the U.S. State Department hasn't committed to any specific number, saying only that it would take 2,000 this year and "many more" in following years.
The biggest question has been how to screen the Syrians for ties to the many terrorist organizations operating in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. There is not only ISIS but al-Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army, and Hezbollah.
Gartenstein said the U.S. system of vetting is "antiquated."
"The risk is greater with al-Nusra than ISIS because it's not as overtly brutal. They're brutal but they're not tweeting out pictures of their beheadings and people they've burned alive. I would also point out that our vetting system is very antiquated," he said. "One of the things that's disturbing about our asylum process is it's really difficult to tell if someone is lying. Someone can say 'My family was massacred by al-Shabab.' Well did that really happen? Does it actually match what was actually going on there on the ground at that particular time at a granular level? We need to use data that way. That's something we should think about for the future because this will not be the last refugee crisis that we face and getting that on-the-ground level data will actually make us safer as a country."
Watch Homeland Security Chair Rep. Michael McCaul's response to the planned importation of 2,000 Syrians into U.S. cities and towns over the next year:
McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the U.S. "must not be naïve" when it comes to Syrian refugees. He said Congress may be forced to "consider additional steps" if the Obama administration doesn't address the problem of vetting.
McCaul's entire statement is transcribed below:
"We've been sounding the alarm for months on this issue and for good reason. America has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants but we need to make sure the extremists don't exploit this pathway to our country, especially from terrorist safe havens. Last year the administration announced plans to surge the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States, including plans to resettle 2,000 of them this year and thousands more next year. This is concerning for two reasons. First, terrorists have made it known they want to manipulate refugee programs to sneak operatives into the West. Second, top national security officials have admitted that intelligence gaps in Syria will make it hard to weed them out of refugee pools. Testifying before our committee in February, the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center called these refuges a 'population of concern' given the expansive presence of ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria. Testifying at the same hearing, the FBI's assistant director, Michael Steinbach from counter-terrorism, argued that identifying potential operatives will be difficult because 'our databases won't have the information we need.' Simply put, We cannot screen applicants confidently if we don't have good intelligence on the ground. We can't vet them properly if we don't have the proper databases. In light of these concerns I sent a series of letters to the administration this year, highlighting the risk of accelerating Syrian refugee admissions and requesting greater assurances regarding the screening process. The responses were inadequate and the administration was vague in explaining how the screening process would overcome the intelligence gaps. I just wrote the president two weeks ago, again asking for answers in a classified briefing for members of this committee. We are still waiting for a serious response. I do not take this issue lightly. Terrorists are constantly probing our defenses and would not hesitate to exploit a program meant to save innocent people fleeing from violence for the purpose of attacking our homeland.
I remind you that members of al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, have already managed to sneak into our country through refugee resettlement programs. Two of these terrorists arrested in 2009 were responsible for killing four Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers in Iraq and yet they gained entry and were resettled in Bowling Green, Kentucky. And that was when we had far better intelligence on the ground in Iraq to vet refugees whereas in Syria we are dark. The situation today in Syria is even more chaotic, making it difficult to get the biometric, biographic and other information needed to ensure individuals being admitted into our country do not intend to do our people harm.
Since its founding America has welcomed refugees from conflict zones in the darkest corners of the globe. We will not abandon that tradition. It embodies the compassion of our people and represents our deepest values. But we must also not abandon our vigilance and we cannot be naïve. In Syrian we are witnessing largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history, and some of these fanatics want to turn our refugee programs into a Trojan horse to carry out attacks here at home. We cannot allow that to happen. And I hope the White House will do more to convince Congress and the American people that it is moving forward cautiously, appropriately, but most importantly with the security of the American people as the priority. If it does not we may need to consider taking additional steps here on Capitol Hill.