Taken at face value, rhetoric from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security would lead Americans to believe that the United States is facing a terrorism crisis at our southern border. The picture being painted is one in which thousands of terrorists have been stopped from crossing the border to infiltrate the homeland. If that were true, that would indeed be a crisis.
In reality, no such crisis exists.
Federal courthouses and prisons are not filled with terrorists we’ve captured at the border. There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States. It simply isn’t true. Anyone in authority using this argument to bolster support for building the wall or any other physical barrier along the southern border is most likely guilty of fearmongering and willfully misleading the American people.
Why do I know this? As director of the National Counterterrorism Center from December 2014 through December 2017, it was my job to lead the government’s efforts to collect and analyze all available information about terrorist threats to the homeland. It was my responsibility on behalf of the intelligence community to synthesize and present that terrorism picture to our most senior decision makers—up to and including the president of the United States—so that sound decisions could be made about how to protect the homeland from terrorist attacks.
Here is the ground truth on this issue. Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS spend time talking about, brainstorming, and even fantasizing about ways in which they can do harm to the United States. At times, those conversations have certainly included discussions of ways in which terrorist operatives might be inserted into the United States. But we also knew from intelligence reporting that terrorist groups have a very high regard for our Homeland Security capabilities, including our border security. They know we have become a much “harder” target than at the time of 9/11 and that getting their operatives into the United States is an extremely challenging proposition.
In part, that’s why terrorist groups pivoted in recent years to a different business model. Rather than focusing on trying to insert a terrorist operative from abroad, it has proven to be far easier for an organization like ISIS or al-Qaida to inspire or motivate an individual already inside the United States to act on their behalf. That change has left us with the threat condition that prevails today, in which the greatest terrorism threat we face is from what we call Homegrown Violent Extremists—in most cases individuals who were either born here or have lived here for most of their adult lives.
The most recent public testimony of our intelligence community professionals—including the acting director of the NCTC and the FBI director—makes that focus on homegrown extremists abundantly clear. What’s more, recent testimony by these officials has not highlighted serious terrorism-related concerns about the southern border. It remains a theoretical vulnerability, but not one that terrorists have been able to exploit.
So, what to make of these thousands of so-called terrorists prevented from entering the country across our southern border? Where do these numbers come from? What seems true is that our system of terrorist watchlisting is in fact working. Though the DHS has not provided data to support its claims, I suspect that on many occasions in recent years, perhaps adding up to thousands, individuals who live abroad and want to travel to the United States have been denied the opportunity to do so because of a concern about a potential nexus to terrorism. Such an individual would have their visa or Electronic System for Travel Authorization application denied and no travel would occur. In other cases, so-called Special Interest Aliens from countries of terrorism concern have likely been stopped at the border.
But each of those visa denials or SIA encounters hardly equates to disruption of a terrorist plot or the “capture” of a known terrorist. Our watchlisting system is predicated on a carefully calibrated risk management approach. When the intelligence community acquires information that points to a potential link to terrorist activity, individuals are not permitted to travel to the United States. But it should not be assumed that every individual who was denied the opportunity to enter the U.S. was in fact a would-be terrorist intent on doing us harm. We are certainly not facing a “crisis” of thousands of terrorists trying to cross our southern border.
For those not willing to take my word or others for it, there is a better indicator that the administration’s arguments about a large-scale terrorist infiltration across the border are specious. If that proposition were true, there would certainly be current intelligence assessments laying out the details of this threat, even citing specific cases of imprisoned terrorists who had made their way through the criminal justice system. And if the administration wished to provide support for its claims, I suspect it would have worked to declassify for public consumption relevant portions of those classified assessments or, at the very least, highlighted past prosecutions using publicly available court documents. To my knowledge, no such effort is underway. That’s because the intelligence community is almost certainly not able to stand publicly behind what the White House and the DHS are saying.
If the administration and indeed Congress were in fact looking for ways to make the American people safer from terrorist attacks, there are things that should be done, apart from building walls. Indeed, for every dollar spent on a $5 billion southern border wall, American public safety could benefit exponentially more from spending it on counterterrorism elsewhere.
First and foremost, we could expand our investment in prevention programs aimed at countering violent extremism here in the U.S. This prevention work involves intensive engagement with communities at the state and local level, and it is difficult, often frustrating work. Success or failure is hard to measure, and it has proven challenging to build trust between the government and communities where extremism can take root. But walking away from these programs, as the current administration has done, is hardly a recipe for success in countering extremism here in the United States. Even relatively modest sums would have significant impact in this area. We are talking millions, not billions.
Secondly, the government could accelerate investments aimed at modernizing our watchlisting systems. In the period since 9/11, much has been accomplished in this area, and we are probably better than any nation in the world when it comes to identifying bad actors and keeping them from entering our country. But there is much more to be done in terms of using modern information technology to enhance our risk management approach, including stepped-up collection and analysis of biometric information. Dollars spent in support of these objectives would do far more to keep us safe than dollars spent on physical barriers.
Lastly, the government can and should increase programming and resources aimed at dealing with purely domestic terrorism, which seems to be of growing concern. To its credit, the administration gave attention to this issue in its recently published counterterrorism strategy. But it remains to be seen if dollars and programs will follow from that strategy document.
To be sure, there are terrorists located abroad who are intent on trying to enter the United States. But the number almost certainly isn’t in the thousands, as has been claimed or implied by the administration. Making such fantastic and unsupportable claims only undermines public trust and confidence in our watchlisting system and in our counterterrorism community. In other words, the rhetorical exaggerations themselves undercut our national security. Most importantly, responding to the challenge posed by terrorist travel is well within our capabilities as a nation—wall or no wall. The intelligence and law enforcement professionals charged with preventing terrorists from entering the United States are highly capable, extremely dedicated, and equipped with a wide range of tools and capabilities to keep us safe. They deserve our trust and confidence. The political manipulation of real facts does both these professionals and the American public a deep disservice.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.
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