WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, expressed his frustration with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security on the lack of proper screening and vetting for Afghan evacuees as well the need to improve the intelligence and information sharing between other countries with regard to high-risk individuals coming into the United States. Portman highlighted how the recent hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas could have been prevented with stronger information sharing from the United Kingdom regarding the criminal and extremist history of the assailant.
A transcript of the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.
Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This Colleyville incident highlights obviously the dangers of allowing unvetted individuals with terrorist motivations into our country. I’ve had a serious concern about the Afghan evacuees, as you know, for some, some time. I don’t think they’ve been adequately vetted or tracked. Unfortunately, this concern was confirmed in a DOD Inspector General report that came out recently that said that the Department of Homeland Security, which are here today, failed to use Department of Defense information collected from the battlefield that included such thing as fingerprints of terrorists involved in planting bombs. DOD checked the records after DHS paroled evacuees into the United States and flagged at least 50 evacuees have what they considered a significant security problem. And most of these flagged evacuees could not be located due to DHS failing to update their location fields and their records.
“I’d like to ask for unanimous consent, Mr. Chairman, to place this report into the hearing record.”
Chairman Gary Peters (D-MI): “Without objection.”
Portman: “Given the stated goals of Al Qaeda and ISIS K based in Afghanistan, I’m concerned about the threats to our homeland security this failure has introduced, not only to our public spaces but to our houses of worship we’re talking about today. Mr. Young, what is the FBI doing to locate these evacuees who were flagged in these tactical databases collected from the battlefield in Afghanistan?”
Ryan Young, Executive Assistant Director, Intelligence Branch at the Federal Bureau of Investigation: “I was going to say, sir, we are definitely coordinating with DOD, State Department as well as DHS. We do hold much of your concern. We have lessons learned from Iraq previously and understanding that we need to be able to check any of these individual screened against our not only common databases, but some of our classified databases, as well as information sharing with foreign partners. This remains a challenge for us. I would second that even some of the concerns of individuals, as Al Qaeda has been in the business for a long time. They understand how to move in operatives, and these continue to be challenges for us.”
Portman: “Okay. You know, I think it’s important that we’ve learned lessons, and I hope we have. It’s incredible to me that we didn’t just do the basic interviews that you would do for a refugee, obviously far more extensive, but anybody coming into the country, even on a visa. And then specifically with regard to these 50 individuals, my question is, have you found them? But perhaps you can provide that information to the Committee. To Ms. Dobitsch, has your Office of Intelligence and Analysis changed its focus in light of these DOD Inspector General findings?”
Stephanie Dobitsch, Deputy Under Secretary for Intelligence Enterprise Operations in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Thank you, sir. While I&A isn’t a screening and vetting agency, we do support the Department’s screening and vetting efforts through the production of our strategic analysis, examining threats, and working closely to evaluate programs like the Visa Waiver Program, which is overseen by our Office of Policy. We also maintain senior officers collocated at the National Counterterrorism Center to help with screening and vetting. And we support, through an IT and technical service perspective, the National Vetting Agency and the Department’s efforts in the screening and vetting mission space. The Department is working closely with the Department of Defense to evaluate the findings and the recommendation and data cited in the DOD Inspector General report. DHS was not consulted as part of that work to prepare, and I understand that subject matter experts will be providing Congress with more detailed updates related to that report.”
Portman: “Okay. I hope you’re taking it seriously and I hope you won’t make changes in your approach. The Colleyville incident we’ve talked about, our intelligence and counterterrorism efforts failed there. They failed to detect a known terrorist, Malik Faisal Akram. He applied for the Visa Waiver Program via an electronic system for travel authorization or an ESTA application. When asked to self report, he lied about his criminal history and terrorist activities. This program was run by the Customs and Border Protection folks and I’m hopeful that the witnesses might be able to shed some light on these failures. So back to you, Mr. Young, Ms. Dobitsch, in light of the attack on Congregation Beth Israel, what changes have any of the FBI and DHS taken to prevent terrorists from exploiting our Visa Waiver Program? Mr. Young?”
Mr. Young: “I would defer that one to DHS.”
Ms. Dobitsch: “Sure. Thanks, Ryan. In the wake of the incident, we have been in active contact with our UK partners discussing Akram’s case. Indications have surfaced that Akram had several criminal and potentially terrorist related interactions with the UK government. However, none of these resulted in information that rose to the threshold for passing to the United States. And so the Department is looking to reevaluate the information sharing agreements we have under the Visa Waiver Program and looking for opportunities to close any gaps on the sharing of similar…”
Portman: “My understanding is the UK government knew that this man was a terror risk? Is that understanding wrong?”
Ms. Dobitsch: “I think so. From our perspective, the information that the UK government had did not reach the threshold for the shared…”
Portman: “Do you think he was a terror risk? Yes or no?”
Ms. Dobitsch: “I’m not sure, sir, what the UK government has.”
Portman: “Our clear information is that they did. And so if that didn’t rise to the level of creating a red flag, I’m not sure what would. I hope we are working to improve our intelligence and information sharing with the UK, but also we’ve got to look more broadly at this issue and I know this Committee is doing that. Thank you all for your testimony today and thank you for your service. And let’s tighten things up. Let’s avoid having another Colleyville that could have much more damaging consequences. Thanks, Mr. Chairman.”