Top Democratic security officials have admitted flaws in background checks, now it is time to address them.
The uproar over President Trump’s temporary suspension of admitting refugees from select conflict zones is far out of proportion to the impact of the policy. And the upset is particularly puzzling since the Trump White House is simply keeping a promise then-president Barack Obama made to thoroughly vet such refugees; a promise he then broke.
When the Obama administration began importing refugees from war-torn Syria, the American people were assured that this humanitarian gesture posed no risk to them. People coming to the United States would have to undergo an 18-24 month vetting process that would weed out potential terrorists. Press Secretary Josh Earnest guaranteed us that “those individuals who seek to enter the United States through the refugee resettlement program do so only after undergoing the most intensive screening of anybody who attempts to enter the United States.”
But Obama administration officials soon cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vetting process. FBI Director James Comey told Congress in October 2015 that he couldn’t “sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.” The Department of Homeland Security warned about the Islamic State printing false documents to enable movement across international borders. As late as last summer CIA Director John Brennan testified that ISIS “has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West” and that the group was “exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows, smuggling routes and legitimate methods of travel.”
Moreover, in the spring of 2016 the Obama administration moved to slash the vetting period. A U.S. embassy employee told the Associated Press the process had been shortened to a mere 3 months. Others agreed that was the goal, but that the system was still taking much longer.
This was not because the original plan was remarkably effective and subject to radical streamlining. Rather, Obama was attempting to achieve an arbitrary quota of 10,000 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. by the end of the year, which the longer vetting process was delaying. It was impossible for the public to evaluate whether this move could possibly keep them safe because the White House kept the details classified. But if an 18-24 month vetting program was sketchy, the 3 month system must have seemed like a terrorist EZ Pass.
Trump’s move to suspend the refugee program temporarily until the system can be made safe and effective is measured and prudent. The refugee program has not been popular. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll last June showed that only 36% of Americans favored admitting Syrian refugees. And the threat is real: the perpetrators of the November 13, 2015 terror attacks in Paris infiltrated Western Europe posing as refugees and migrants. Last year the FBI began re-investigating dozens of Syrian refugees who slipped through cracks in the vetting system despite red flags in their backgrounds.
But you would never know this from the manufactured outrage from liberal critics. Their knee-jerk response is hyper-emotional, disproportionate, and colored by fakery. Calling the policy a “Muslim ban” for example is completely false.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says that the temporary suspension “is not who we are,” but she must be forgetting who she is. In a speech she gave in December 2015, Clinton said that the U.S. has to “be vigilant in screening and vetting refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security and diplomatic professionals.” And recall that in 2011 when she was Secretary of State, her Department suspended all immigration for Iraqi refugees for six months, after the FBI uncovered terrorists linked to al Qaeda who had used the program to infiltrate the U.S. That policy made sense then, as this policy does now. The public has a right to know that any refugees being admitted to this country have been vetted to the fullest extent possible. Obama promised to do this, and failed. Now Trump is making good on the same promise.
James S. Robbins, an expert on national security, foreign affairs and the military, is an author and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His books include This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.