However, while plan’s advocates argue its safety and compassion, government officials have for months been highlighting concerns — both directly and indirectly — about the nation’s ability to vet refugees from Syria amid a lack of data.
1) Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on October 8, FBI Director James Comey explained of Syrian refugees: “There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that. My concern there is that there are certain gaps I don’t want to talk about publicly in the data available to us.”
2) At the same Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on October 8 Nicholas Rasmussen, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), testified, “The intelligence picture we have of this particular conflict zone is not as rich as we would like it to be so that would give us — obviously, when you screen and vet you screen and — and vet against available intelligence holdings.”
3) Comey again acknowledged the vetting issue before the a House Judiciary Committee hearing on October 22. Then Comey recalled that despite a hefty amount of data from Iraq, the fingerprints of two Iraqis who were admitted as refugees were later found on explosive devices. “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is we have improved dramatically our ability as an interagency — all parts of the U.S. government — to query and check people,” he said. “The bad news is our ability to touch data with respect to people who may come from Syria, may be limited. That is — if we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our database.”
At that same hearing Comey reiterated, “The only thing we can query is information that we have. And so if we have no information on someone, they’ve never crossed our radar screen, never been a ripple in the pond, there will be no record of them there.”
4) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson noted in October that it will be a “challenge” to vet the Syrian refugees. According to CNS News, Johnson said, “We’ve gotten better at that over the last couple years, but it is a time-consuming process, and one of the challenges we will have is that we’re not going to know a whole lot about the individual refugees that come forward from the UN High Commission on Refugees for Resettlement and Vetting.”
5) In February, Assistant Director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division Michael Steinbach testified before a House Homeland Security Committee, “The difference is, in Iraq, we were there on the ground collecting, so we had databases to use. The concern is in Syria, the lack of our footprint on the ground in Syria, that the databases won’t have the information we need. So, it’s not that we have a lack of process, it is there’s a lack of information.”
6) At a Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest hearing on October 1, Barbara Strack, the head the Refugee Affairs Division at USCIS revealed that the agency had a 90 percent approval rate for the Syrian refugees.
“Right now it’s higher than [80 percent] for Syrian applicants but it’s likely to come down,” Strack said. “Right now it’s running a little over 90 percent for Syrian applicants but that percentage is based on all the cases that have been decided yes and no, what it leaves out is cases that are still under review or still on hold.”
7) On November 17, Attorney General Loretta Lynch conceded before the House Judiciary Committee that there are “challenges” to vetting Syrian refugees. “Certainly there are challenges to [the vetting] process because of the situation in Syria,” she said. “But I would note, however, that we do have the benefit of having that significant and robust screening process in place. A process that Europe has not been to set up which renders them more vulnerable.”
8) On November 19, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard acknowledged that “threats” have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees. “I agree with you that in the history of the three million refugees who have come here, there have been a handful that have been a threat to the United States and fortunately they have been stopped before anything bad happened,” Richard testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. She further recalled the two Iraqis who were admitted to the U.S. as refugees and later revealed to have “done bad things in Iraq.” Richard noted that the “system has been improved since that episode.”
Also during that hearing Richard revealed that the Obama administration stops tracking refugees after three months in the U.S. “We do not track them after the first three months in the United States,” she said.