With Donald Trump’s incessant calls for the U.S. to bar Muslims, it’s easy to forget that three months ago, a photograph of a Syrian toddler facedown in the sand spurred a global call to action on the refugee crisis.
Roughly one in six Americans now say terrorism is the country’s biggest problem, according to a Gallup poll conducted just after the attack in San Bernardino, California, the deadliest on U.S. soil since 9/11. That’s the highest percentage in a decade, up from just 3 percent last month. Meanwhile, Americans’ belief that the government can protect them sank to an all-time low in the Gallup poll.
As for Trump, 60 percent of Americans disagree with his proposed Muslim ban, but nearly six out of 10 Republican voters back it, according to a Monday Washington Post/ABC News poll. Many Republican leaders have repudiated his rhetoric — but said they’d still support him as nominee.
It’s not just the New York businessman. Sen. Ted Cruz, hot on Trump’s heels, said he wouldn’t “criticize and attack” him (publicly at least) but simply “disagreed” with his approach. Instead, Cruz said last week, the U.S. military should start “carpet bombing” in Iraq and Syria, following his earlier dark quip that it’d show whether “sand can glow in the dark.”
The tension has put the politics of national security and nativism on a collision course. How did we get here? And perhaps more troublingly still: Where are we going?
When the photo of 3-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi was published Sept. 3, it prompted a worldwide outcry. In an instant, it put a face to the 4.4 million refugees who had left Syria since its civil war began in 2011, the largest displacement of people since WWII.
It also shamed the U.S., once a leader in helping the world’s displaced peoples, but which has resettled just over 2,200 Syrians, less than one-tenth of the applicants referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. One week after Aylan’s photo was published, the Obama administration announced the U.S. would take 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Soon afterward, it said the U.S. would raise its annual cap on global refugees to 100,000 by 2017. Democratic and even some Republican presidential candidates urged Obama to do more.
But administration officials said “national security concerns” constrained its response. Security agency chiefs told Congress that they were worried about intelligence gaps on war-torn Syria. “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria,” FBI Director James Comey said on Oct. 21, “We can query our database until the cows come home but … there will be nothing.”
Still, they could produce no evidence that Syrian refugees posed a threat. (Of the 784,000 refugees the U.S. has resettled since 9/11, only three have been arrested for terrorism—none of them Syrians.) And they confirmed that that the refugee-screening process had tightened in recent years. Over five years, U.S. officials have denied admission to about 30 individuals flagged in databases, and to several hundred more after required in-person interviews. Last year, they added a screening layer for Syrians “to ensure potential gaps are covered.”
Ultimately, both parties’ leaders expressed confidence in the strict measures for refugees. Eighty-four lawmakers even wrote to Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, suggesting that various redundancies in the screening process were slowing things down unnecessarily.
Then Paris happened.
On Nov. 13, Islamic State-affiliated terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks across Paris, shaking a world already on edge from attacks in Beirut and a bomb that downed a Russian jetliner over Egypt.
Most of the attackers were French citizens. Several are believed to have used fake Syrian passports, and the Paris prosecutor’s office reported one’s fingerprints matched a man who entered through Greece.
On Nov. 16, the U.S. and France signed a new ISIS intelligence-sharing agreement. On Nov. 18, President Francois Hollande defended his decision to resettle 30,000 refugees over the next two years, after rigorous security checks.
“France will remain a country of freedom,” he said.
The United States, recently awoken to the plight of Syrian refugees, descended just as swiftly into fear.
On Nov. 15, Cruz said the U.S. shouldn’t allow Muslim refugees. On Nov. 17, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the U.S. shouldn’t accept even “orphans under five.” On Nov. 18, Trump said the U.S. had “absolutely no choice” but to shutter mosques. On Nov. 19, Ben Carson compared refugees to rabid dogs. In short order, some two dozen governors—mostly, but not entirely Republican—vowed to block the resettlement of refugees (though federal courts reaffirmed they legally cannot).
An infamously “do-nothing” Congress leapt to slam the door on Syrian refugees. On Nov. 17, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and new House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a “pause.” Two days later, 47 Democrats helped pass the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act” to effectively block refugees from Syria and Iraq, by a veto-proof majority of 289-137. “Today the House put politics aside to help keep the American people safe,” Ryan said.
The White House threatened to veto, but several senators, despite rejecting the scapegoating of refugees, said they’d support the House proposal.
Obama slammed the response as anti-American and dangerous—and in return was charged for being a “divider in chief.” The administration scrambled to counter the misinformation that the U.S. wasn’t vetting refugees by organizing briefings for lawmakers and reporters and launching the “#RefugeesWelcome” campaign.
On Nov. 19, Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch said they weren’t aware of any credible, specific threats of a “Paris-type attack,” in the U.S. “We are watching people of concern using all of our lawful tools, and if we see something, we’re going to disrupt it,” Comey said.
On Nov. 25, Obama again took a podium to reassure the American public. Flanked by Lynch and Comey, he said, “The combined resources of our military, our intelligence and our homeland security agencies are on the case. In the event of a specific, credible threat, the public will be informed.”
On Nov. 27, a man killed a policeman and two others at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, sparking debate on domestic terrorism.
At a rally the next day, Trump didn’t mention Colorado, but said, “If some of those folks that were just slaughtered in Paris, if a couple of guns were in that room that were held by the good guys, you woulda had a different story.”
The White House began shifting the heat from refugees to the U.S. visa-waiver program, which allows 20 million visitors per year to travel here without a visa if they are citizens of 38 partner countries—including France. They go through multiple screenings, but the administration has acknowledged terrorists, such as 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, have exploited the program.
On Nov. 30, the White House announced that DHS could flag passengers who had traveled to “a terrorist safe haven” and hike fines on airlines that don’t verify passports.
On Dec. 1, Intelligence committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Jeff Flake introduced the “Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act.” (There are at least eight pending bills addressing the program.)
Flake stressed bipartisanship. “It’s important that Congress work together in a meaningful way to ensure that those who would do us harm on our own soil are unable to do so,” he said.
Then San Bernardino happened.
On Dec. 2, a couple used two military-style assault rifles to kill 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino before being killed by police.
The FBI and other law enforcement are referring to the attackers as domestic terrorists who had been “self-radicalized” for at least two years. The couple pledged allegiance to ISIS on social media, and the group called them “sympathizers.”
Despite stating on social media that she supported jihad, Malik passed three U.S. national security and criminal background checks and two in-person interviews. She didn’t flag databases, and officials don’t typically review social media. On Monday, the The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is now considering requiring social-media reviews, which Congress is looking at as well, with Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain introducing a bill to do so Tuesday afternoon.
A friend who purchased the weapons used in the attack is also connected to the couple by marriage; his wife, a relative of Malik, came to the U.S., along with her sister, on J-1 visitor exchange visas, another scrutinized program.
The contrast between 2016 candidates’ responses was stark: the Republicans issued nearly identical statements using “thoughts and prayers” while the Democratic field called for gun reform.
In Washington, Obama critics again seized on the attack and his primetime call to stay the course. While noting that the intelligence community failed to anticipate the attack, they also often conflate the security requirements of the refugee, visa-waiver, and K-1 programs.
Last Tuesday, the House passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 by an overwhelming vote of 407-19. (Thus far, Republicans have been reluctant to go after the “fiancee visa.”)
Though authorities haven’t found that the attackers used encryption, on Dec. 9, Comey noted that they still can’t access 109 encrypted messages a Texas shooter exchanged with an “overseas terrorist,” because the May attack occurred after certain NSA powers lapsed. But he added, “To find those that are radicalizing and being inspired by these terrorist groups is a very, very hard thing.”
That hasn’t stopped 2016 candidates. Ahead of the GOP debate, Sen. Marco Rubio has been hitting Cruz’s vote to end the NSA’s bulk metadata program as “isolationist.”
At first, it seemed Trump’s Muslim ban went too far. House Speaker Ryan said: “This is not conservatism.” McConnell called it “completely inconsistent with American values.” McCain told Defense One it was “foolishness,” noting Muslim allies. Yet all three said they’d support Trump if he were nominee.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Trump’s rhetoric was “contrary” to national security. Defense Secretary Carter said lawmakers are stymying the counterterrorism effort. He encouraged Congress to pass an “omnibus” spending bill, calling continuing resolutions a “straitjacket.”
On Thursday, Congress passed a continuing resolution to Dec. 16. Ryan said Tuesday there will be another short extension, though the $1.1 trillion deal is near completion.
Meanwhile, the White House is ratcheting up its public-relations campaign, beginning on Dec. 8 to provide regular NSC “Counter-ISIL Round-Ups,” and on Friday launching a website on the counter-ISIS fight. Last Sunday, President Obama gave a rare Oval Office address urging Americans to unite in the wake of San Bernardino. Ramping up his public reassurance, on Monday Obama convened a national security meeting at the Pentagon; on Thursday he’ll visit the National Counterterrorism Center.
“As we squeeze its heart, we’ll make it harder for ISIL to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world,” Obama said Monday.
The administration is also calling out congressional inaction on “common-sense” security steps, such as keeping those on terror watchlists from buying military-style weapons and passing an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against ISIS.
As House Democrats repeatedly fail to force a gun-control vote, Rep. Tom McClintock, who was inadvertently put on a no-fly list, summed up opposition: “The best defense against an armed terrorist is an armed American.”
Aides said the handful of competing immigration measures, from refugees to visa waivers, were also a live part of the omnibus negotiations, but Ryan told his caucus Monday night language to tighten restrictions on Iraqi and Syrian refugees didn’t make it in. More than half the Democrats who backed the House refugee “pause” have reversed, and visa waiver changes are more likely — a small but much-needed victory for the administration.
And yet as Republicans and Democrats on the campaign, in Congress, and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue look to score political points on national security, many are abdicating responsibility in the race to 2016.
Ryan reiterated Tuesday that Republicans want the White House give them a plan, but don’t count an AUMF. The White House submitted its AUMF 10 months ago, and some dozen different versions have been introduced, but Congress hasn’t acted.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told Defense One last week, “Believe it or not, you can solve all of that by having a strategy in Syria to defeat ISIS. And if you don’t do that, then you probably can’t beef up visa waiver and refugee policy enough.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer said an AUMF could be a forcing mechanism—for Republicans.
The White House says lawmakers are dodging, but it doesn’t need new authority. “I’m not a lawyer,” Carter, “but I’m told, and I’m glad, otherwise it would be a problem, we have the legal authority to do what we want to do.”
The 2016 candidates talk tough, but most have yet to specify how their national security strategy would differ from Obama.
“Our strategy with radical Islamic terrorism should be very simple: We win, they lose,” Cruz said last week. But when asked how, he said, “whatever else is necessary.”
Clinton will give a counterterrorism speech Tuesday on “the threat of domestic radicalization,” demonstrating “the most effective plan” is true to American values — as Obama has also emphasized.
“In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of WWII,” Obama said at a naturalization ceremony Tuesday.
As Obama heads to Hawaii for the holidays, Carter to the Middle East, and Kerry to Russia, the 16-month-old war against ISIS goes on. The U.S.-carried coalition has conducted nearly 9,000 strikes. The U.N. predicts 2016 will be the highwater mark for refugees. And despite more negotiations set for Friday, even Obama acknowledges that Bashar al-Assad will likely outlast him.
Welcome to 2016.