Immigration ban misses greatest threat, counterterrorism expert says

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People participate in a protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban at Columbia University in New York City, U.S. January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - RTX2YWYB

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Many questions remain about President Trump’s executive order temporarily prohibiting citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Perhaps chief among these questions: Does it make us any safer?

Both today and yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer fielded queries from reporters.

REPORTER: Some of the countries that have problems with terrorism are not on the list.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: Right, and we’re reviewing the entire process over this period of time to make sure that we do this right.

But I don’t think you have to look any further than the families of the Boston Marathon in Atlanta, in San Bernardino, to ask if we can go further. There’s obviously steps that we can and should be taking, and I think the president is going to continue do to what he can to make sure that this country is as safe as possible.

REPORTER: There are some people obviously critical of the fact that you have countries like, for example, mentioned, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, where we have had attacks on U.S. soil with connections to those countries. So, do you foresee those being added?

SEAN SPICER: So, are you asking, what is our concern with their reaction to us?

REPORTER: Absolutely.

SEAN SPICER: Yes.

Look, I think the president’s number one goal is the protection and safety of the United States and its people. If they want to act in a way that’s inconsistent with their concerns, then that’s up to them to do it as a sovereign nation. But it is our duty and it is his duty to make sure that this country and its people are protected first and foremost.

It can’t be a ban if you’re letting a million people in. If 325,000 people from another country can’t come in, that is by nature not a ban. It is extreme vetting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is this policy effective? Does it make U.S. citizens safer?

For one perspective, I am joined now by Michael Leiter. He was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Michael Leiter, welcome back to the program.

What’s your general reaction to what Sean Spicer is saying is the White House rationale for this?

MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center: Well, I think, as a general matter, it misses the point that much of this vetting is already going on.

And so the question is, why stop it now? What are we going to add? And if the goal is to have a zero-defect system, that no one will ever come to the U.S. who later poses a danger to U.S. citizens, then there’s really only one way to accomplish that, and that is to permanently shut down all immigration.

And the fact is, we can’t do that. We wouldn’t do that. We have to make smart judgments based on facts about how we vet people, where we vet people, and where the threat really comes from. So, based on all of those things, I really don’t see this right now as being an effective counterterrorism tool.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re referring, among other things, to the fact that a number of the terrorist incidents that have taken place in this country, a number of them were on the part of people who had been living here for a number of years.

MICHAEL LEITER: That’s right.

Since 2001, 82 percent of fatal attacks in the United States from Sunni extremist terrorism, violent Islamic extremists, have been legal permanent residents or citizens. And the others weren’t from these seven countries.

So, by shutting down, at least temporarily, immigration from these countries, it’s a little bit like closing the barn door, but it’s not even the barn door where the horse came from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael, when the White House is asked why these seven countries, they say, well, these were countries that were identified by President Obama. And this is when — at a time when you were in office — they’re saying 2011. They were identified at that time as being countries of concern.

What’s the difference between what happened under President Obama and what they’re doing now?

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, there is some truth there. These seven countries do represent countries where there’s a serious terrorism threat.

But this — these countries really grew out of the Paris attacks. And that issue involved people from European countries who didn’t need a visa, immigration visa at all. They were from visa waiver countries who could just travel to the U.S.

And under the Obama administration, if people, say, from the United Kingdom traveled to Yemen, then they would have to apply for a visa. What this order did was import those countries to which people were traveling and saying anyone traveling from those countries, there’s going to be a pause.

So I think there’s some correlation, but it’s really using it for a very, very different purpose. And it misses, again, what the greatest threat was, which is people coming from visa waiver countries where the reviews are much less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, visa waiver countries being countries we normally think of as friendly, our allies, in Europe, other parts of the world, where there is a government not viewed as a threat.

MICHAEL LEITER: That’s exactly right.

There are really three ways to get into the United States, a visa waiver country, the U.K., Germany, France, where we have very close ties and share information. They don’t have to apply. They don’t get interviewed.

Visa countries, like these seven, where people are already being vetted, quite extremely, I would say. And then refugees, which really fall into a special category and who get special attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when they say these are all designed to make the United States safer, to make American citizens safer, the answer is?

MICHAEL LEITER: I think the answer on these countries is, I don’t see it.

And we have to remember the ways in which this alienates the people with whom we have to partner, domestically and internationally. It’s the Muslim community in the U.S., which helps us identify terrorists and radicalized individuals and stop them. And, critically, it’s the international partners that we need help from in the Middle East and in majority Muslim nations who I fear will be alienated by some of these steps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the vetting process that already takes place, that was taking place through the Obama administration. I was reading a piece just today or yesterday citing at least 20 different steps that someone has to take if they want to enter the United States from one of these countries considered suspect.

How would you go about tightening — just how tight is that process? And how would you go about tightening it, making it more — stricter?

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, it’s hard to figure out, quite honestly, Judy. And that’s in part because it has been constantly improved.

It was good in 2001, after 9/11. It wasn’t perfect. And after 2011 and the underwear bomber, the Christmas Day bomber, it was tightened more. But, today, every individual who is applying for a visa, they go through biographical checks from all of the national security agencies, the FBI, DHS and CIA.

They have biometric checks, fingerprints. And they’re finally interviewed before they even get that visa. And then they undergo additional screening while they’re traveling. So it is pretty severe. And in the cases of refugees coming out of Syria, it is even more severe.

And they have already been screened by the U.N. before handed over to the U.S. And in those cases, we’re generally not talking about what would be known in our circles as military-age males, the ones you’re most concerned with becoming terrorists. In the case of Syrian refugees, that’s less than 2 percent of the population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other argument I have heard the administration make is that these individuals come from places where they can’t — the U.S. can’t believe what their government says about whether they — about their background, that it’s either a chaotic situation, disorganized situation, or a government that the U.S. would have no reason to trust.

MICHAEL LEITER: There’s no doubt that some cases like Syria make it more difficult.

But I think the one you just repeated was really exaggerating how hard it is. We still have lots of databases. We have lots of information. We know e-mail addresses. We know phone numbers. And searching those against the wealth of collection that the U.S. intelligence community has can make connections that are important.

Further steps that have been improved over the past several years involve looking at people’s social media profile. That’s really important to understand. We do have to demand that countries from which these people are coming are cooperating with the United States. That should be part of the visa process.

So I think that’s an important step, that we demand from these countries that they provide with us information. But the idea that we simply can’t get data about these people, I think, misunderstands how the intelligence community and the vetting system has worked since 9/11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Leiter, thank you very much.

MICHAEL LEITER: Great to be here, Judy. Thanks.

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