For the second time this year, the FBI has warned Congress that admitting people displaced by the Syrian civil war into the U.S. is a highly dubious venture, fraught with risks that terrorist fighters could slip in posing as “refugees.”
The debate about the security risk posed by Syrian refugees has been raging for months between two sectors of the federal government – the FBI headed by James Comey and the State Department headed by John Kerry.
On Wednesday, Comey testified before Congress. Speaking before the House Homeland Security Committee, Comey said it was not possible for the U.S. to properly vet the Syrian refugees because there are no data points that would show the past activity of the vast majority of Syrians.
Kerry’s State Department has repeatedly insisted that refugees are the “most highly scrutinized” and “most rigorously vetted” of all travelers to the United States and Americans should not fear that someone from ISIS could slip into the refugee ranks, despite ISIS operatives promising that this is an avenue they intend to exploit.
“The challenge we’re all talking about is that, we can only query against that (data) which we have collected,” Comey said. “And so if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but there would be nothing show up because we have no record on it.
“You can only query what you have collected. And with respect to the Iraqi refugees, we had far more in our database because of our country’s work there, for a decade. This is a different situation.”
Watch clip of FBI Director James Comey testifying at this week’s hearing:
This is the third major hearing on Syrian refugees in Congress this year. A fourth hearing had been scheduled last month by the House Judiciary Committee, but it was abruptly postponed and so far has not been rescheduled.
As the debate over security risks continues in Congress, the Obama administration has already brought in more than 1,850 Syrian refugees, most of them in 2015, and Obama plans to bring in 10,000 more over the next year. Among those 1,850 already here, 97 percent are Muslims, as the Obama administration has left the persecuted Christians being hunted and killed by the Islamic State to fend for themselves.
Some pushing Obama to accept more Syrians
Fourteen Democrat senators led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Amy Klobucher, D-Minn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., believe Obama is being too conservative in the number of Syrians he is willing to accept into the U.S. They have called on the president to up the ante. They want him to bring in at least 65,000 Syrian Muslim refugees. Some refugee lobbying groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the International Rescue Committee have called on the U.S. to accept at least 100,000 Syrian refugees.
Some of the nation’s mayors and governors are also pushing for more Syrians. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder told the Detroit News he could accommodate thousands of Syrians in Detroit, while 18 mayors have sent a letter saying they also want Syrian refugees sent to their cities.
Back on Feb. 11, the House Homeland Security Committee heard from FBI counter-terrorism expert Michael Steinbach, and he told the committee the same thing that Comey said Wednesday: The FBI has no reliable data with which to screen the Syrians. Steinbach said the U.S. has no “boots on the ground,” as it did in Iraq, and that Syria is a “failed state” with no intelligence records or law-enforcement records to share with the United States.
Sessions unloads on DHS bureaucrats
It was further revealed in an Oct. 1 hearing by Sen. Jeff Sessions’ immigration committee that more than 90 percent of Syrians who apply to enter the U.S. as refugees get approved despite little or no data existing on their backgrounds.
Testifying was Matthew Emrich, associate director for Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within the Department of Homeland Security.
Sessions, R-Ala., asked if Emrich’s department had access to even a single database in Syria that could provide solid background records on refugees in order to confirm a refugee is who he says he is.
“Can you name a single computer database outside of maybe some of our own very small but valuable intelligence databases for Syria that you can check against? Does Syria have any?” Sessions asked.
“The government does not, no sir,” Emrich answered.
Syrian passports available for $200 on black market
Sessions pointed out from various press reports that Syrian passports can be purchased on the black market for as little as $200, and nearly half of the refugees pouring into Europe are actually from Pakistan, Afghanistan, north Africa and other hotbeds of Islamic terrorism.
Sessions reminded Emrich of Steinbach’s earlier testimony about Syria and the lack of intelligence available to the U.S.
“Michael Steinbach on Feb 11 expressed serious concerns with the screening of Syrian refugees. I don’t see how you can gloss over this,” Sessions said. “He said … you’re talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure and therefore any of the institutions you would normally go to and seek data on these individuals, do not exist.”
“But Mr. Steinbach is making a serious point, that there are no databases to check,” Sessions said.
“We check everything that we have available within U.S. holdings. As far as I’m concerned, if we haven’t overturned every stone, we are in the process of overturning every stone,” Emrich responded.
“There you go,” Sessions said. “We’re turning over everything we can overturn. I don’t deny that. But you don’t have their criminal records. You don’t have the computer database that you can check, so isn’t Mr Steinbach telling the truth? That in many cases it just doesn’t exist?”
Sessions said he’s been in law enforcement for 15 years as a federal prosecutor and knows how the international crime databases work.
“There’s no way you can do background checks on these people,” he said. “If you get a hit on a background check, you can reject that person, but you have only a minuscule number of people who have been identified in that fashion, so I don’t believe you can tell us with any certainty that that person is who he says he is. So aren’t you left with looking at whatever document they produce?
“Is there any way you can actually send someone to Iraq or Syria and see if someone actually lived on the street where they said they lived, or actually had the job he claims to have had?”
Emrich said his department does not have the ability to send an investigator to Syria but relies on biometric and biographical information.
“I’m sure there are things you can do, but are you saying you can independently verify with positive data on the majority of cases?” Sessions asked. “Can you give me a number? Is it 50 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent?”
“I can’t give you a number, sir,” said Strack.
“And the reason is, you don’t have the ability,” Sessions concluded. “I wish you did, but you don’t.”
Turning to terror
Sessions presented a list of refugees who turned into terrorists after they were resettled in the United States.
There were six Somali men from Minnesota charged with providing material support to overseas terrorists, an Uzbek Muslim refugee in Idaho who was convicted in August of making bombs and recruiting other Muslims to attack U.S. military installations, seven others in Minnesota charged with trying to join ISIS, and dozens of others caught trying to join al-Shabab, an affiliate of al-Qaida in Somalia.
“The problems we face are here, now,” he said. “This is not just scare tactics. A coach in Minneapolis said ‘there are monsters out there,’ more than 20 young (refugees) from Minnesota between 2007 and 2009 left to join al-Shabab. And in the past year, disappearances began again, this time to the Islamic State. Ms. Strack and Mr. Emrich, you don’t have the ability to do security checks on these people.”
Sessions asked, “Can any of you tell me of the number of persons granted refugee status since 2001 who have been affiliated with terrorist activity?”
Among those who sat mum was Robert Carey, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operates within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Sessions’ subcommittee established a list of 72 men arrested between July 2014 and July 30, 2015, who were charged with terrorist activity and appear to be immigrants from Muslim nations.