- The Washington Times
Monday, December 7, 2015

The head of the House Committee on Homeland Security said Monday that members of the Islamic State have explored entering the United States through the refugee resettlement program, a claim that could ramp up additional pressure on President Obama to rethink his plan to resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said Islamic State members in Syria have tried to “exploit” the system to get into the country.

“The U.S. government has information to indicate that individuals tied to terrorist groups in Syria have already attempted to gain access to our country through the U.S. refugee program,” Mr. McCaul said during a speech at the National Defense University.

Asked about the claim, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at the daily press briefing that he could not confirm the information.

“It does, however, give me the opportunity to remind all of you that those individuals that seek to enter the United States through the refugee resettlement program do so only after undergoing the most intensive screening of anybody who attempts to enter the United States,” Mr. Earnest said.

The deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have raised concerns about international terrorism and future terrorist attacks inside the United States.

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The events have shaped the conversation on Capitol Hill and spilled over into the 2016 presidential race, where businessman Donald Trump called Monday for banning all Muslims from coming to the U.S.

House Republicans are urging the Obama administration to pursue a more aggressive approach to defeating the Islamic State, and have passed a bill that would halt his plans to resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in the United States until the vetting process is strengthened.

House lawmakers are scheduled to take up a bill Tuesday that puts tighter restrictions on visa waivers, which allow travelers from 38 countries to travel to the United States without a passport. The White House has praised the proposal. GOP lawmakers also want to re-evaluate visa programs such as the K-1 fiancee visa that was used by Tashfeen Malik, a shooter in the San Bernardino terror attacks.

Mr. McCaul said Monday he hopes to build on those efforts by introducing legislation to create a national commission on security and technology that will be tasked with coming up with recommendation on how best to handle the threat of encrypted terrorist communications.

“No longer do terrorists plot by using couriers and caves,” Mr. McCaul said. “Today they hide their messages in what is called ‘dark spaces,’ using encrypted applications and other secure platforms to evade law enforcement and intelligence services.

“This is one of the greatest counterterrorism challenges of the 21st century,” he said. “It is one of the biggest fears that keeps me up at night. When the administration says there are no known credible threats to the homeland, it means less today than it once did because we cannot stop what we cannot see.”

Mr. McCaul said Monday the Paris attackers “reportedly used secure communications, and they managed to stay under the radar.”

The commission, Mr. McCaul said, will include members of the technology and defense communities, privacy and civil liberty groups, as well as members of law enforcement and academia.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, announced Monday they will be pushing for the creation of an office within the Department of Homeland Security that would work with the National Academy of Sciences, the intelligence community and members of the private sector to address questions about the links between encryption and homegrown terrorism.

Some lawmakers, digital security experts and others, however, have been wary and warned against giving law enforcement some sort of backdoor access to encrypted communications.

President Obama also touched on the issue of encryption in a rare prime-time address from the Oval Office Sunday, in which he sought to reassure the American people he has a plan to defeat the Islamic State.

“I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” he said.

Mr. Earnest said Monday that the Obama administration is “mindful of the need to ensure that law enforcement professionals or national security professionals have access to the tools they need to keep us safe.”

On Monday Mr. McCaul also called for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to protect refugees and moderate opposition forces. He said the U.S. should lead a coalition of ground forces against Islamic State and that U.S. special forces should be more deeply involved with local forces.

And he called for a loosening of the rules of engagement by moving away from the “zero collateral damage” of airstrikes, arguing it has made it harder to destroy the Islamic State.

“You are either all in or not,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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