Protecting Our Security and Our Values
Last week we were saddened by news of yet another senseless terror attack on innocent civilians, this time in San Bernardino. Last month the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali − part of Minnesota-based Carlson Companies − was targeted. Although both these attacks happened miles and miles away from our state, they hit close to home. Having spoken with their managers, I know that Carlson is grieving the loss of life. And the heartbreaking stories of Isaac Amanios, Benneta Betbadal, and Tin Nguyen − who all came to America to escape violence, persecution and war in their home countries of Eritrea, Iran, and Vietnam and were killed in San Bernardino − and of American aid worker Anita Datar − a kind woman who devoted her entire life to helping others and raising her young son and was killed in Mali − remind us that the victims of these massacres will never be limited to one nationality or one ethnicity or one religion.
The attacks in San Bernardino and Mali follow the horrific ISIS terrorist assault on Paris that left 130 people dead as well as the bombing of a Russian airliner departing Egypt that killed 224 tourists. I have worked with my Senate colleagues and attended numerous meetings and security briefings to get the facts about the attacks in Paris, Egypt and San Bernardino. I believe it is critical that we take additional steps both at home and abroad to combat Islamic extremism − and ISIS in particular − to keep our country safe.
As you read this, remember that the actions we take over the weeks and months ahead must enhance and support our community and our shared American values. We must be strong. And being strong means not only going after those who want to destroy us, but also standing by the innocents among us.
When I was a prosecutor we had one straightforward goal: convict the guilty and protect the innocent. To me, that simple mission still holds true. We must make our world safer by rooting out the evil in our midst while still protecting the rights of people who mean no harm. Those fourteen people in San Bernardino, that American aid worker killed in Mali, those innocent families whose plane exploded over Egypt, and those young people killed and maimed in Paris deserve nothing less.
I have laid out a course of action below, and I hope you will consider these proposals with your friends, family and colleagues. This is a complex problem and the solutions are never easy. I welcome your thoughts.
First, we must take out this evil at its roots. We must increase our efforts to build and lead an international coalition against ISIS that includes our European allies in NATO as well as our Arab partners. More and more countries are being victimized by jihadists bent on killing innocents to demonstrate their disdain for peace and basic human dignity. Their goal is to destroy democracies that allow for freedom of religion and speech and equal rights. ISIS and other extremist groups pose the most serious threat to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, occupying territory to serve as bases to spread their terrorism further. That’s why the forces and resources needed to combat these terrorists cannot be secured from just a few nations. One thing is certain: we will not be successful in this fight against ISIS and other extremist groups unless countries in the region are a major part of the coalition.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the large-scale deployment of American troops, but I do support intensified air strikes with our allies and the deployment of American Special Forces to help support local forces combating terrorists. In the end we need strong local and regional troops on the front lines to make real progress. The success we have seen in retaking previously ISIS-held territories in parts of Syria and Iraq is due to the fact that our military was able to work in conjunction with motivated and capable Kurdish forces on the ground. In addition to these coordinated efforts, I would also like to see a no-fly zone in Syria that would protect civilians. Years ago I called for a no-fly zone after visiting the region and I still believe it must be considered in order to help our partners in Syria who are standing up to ISIS.
Hitting ISIS in its own territory will certainly not solve all our problems − the group claiming credit for the attack in Mali, was, for example, an al Qaeda affiliate − but it will make a major difference. It is also critical that we intensify our efforts to track and cut off the sources of the jihadists’ money, as well as the infrastructure that allows them to transfer fighters and resources through networks across the world. I also strongly believe, as the President reiterated Sunday evening, that Congress should debate and pass a new Authorization of Military Force instead of relying on an old one passed at a different time and under different circumstances.
Second, as we undertake these efforts overseas, we must also keep our own country safe through smart security strategies and intelligence sharing. These measures include:
(a) Targeted changes to the VISA waiver program to strengthen security protections
Currently people who hold European and certain other passports are allowed to enter our country with limited screening through the important visa waiver program − a program that allows people in 38 nations to visit our country without getting a special visa. While we have greatly increased the security measures accompanying that program (including terrorist watch lists), there are ways we can make it even more secure. Current procedures would have prevented, for instance, most of those engaged in the terrorist attacks in France from coming to the U.S. But at least one of the suicide bombers in France was not on those lists and could have potentially been allowed entry. Last week I was one of a group of Democratic and Republican senators − including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake −who introduced legislation to strengthen the security of the visa waiver program by preventing foreign fighters from using the program, requiring additional biometric information and electronic passports to participate in the program, and increasing information sharing between countries. We are hopeful that the Senate will pass this legislation.
(b) Continued and updated airport security
The bomb that ISIS claims took down the plane over Egypt − senselessly killing 224 people, most of them Russian families − reminds us that our country needs a continued and updated focus on airport security. Thanks to those protecting us on the front lines every day, our airport checkpoints and overall air security are much better than what we see in many other countries, including at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, which was the point of departure for the plane that exploded over Egypt. Yet recent reports still found gaps in our own airport security, which means that we must never rest on our laurels. We must be continually updating and improving our methods. For those traveling over the holidays, remember the reason there are lines. The TSA workers are there to protect you. Please be patient. This is for everyone’s security.
(c) Closing the loophole that allows suspected terrorists to legally buy guns in the U.S.
Incredibly, current U.S. law does not prevent individuals who are currently on terror watch lists from purchasing guns. A total of 2,233 people on the watch list tried to buy guns between 2004 and 2014, and 2,043 − 91 percent − of them succeeded, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. I am a cosponsor of Senator Feinstein’s bill to close this loophole, and Republican Representative Peter King of New York has long advocated for this change. Now would be a good time to make it.
I have also supported background checks for gun purchases and closing loopholes in our current system that allow criminals to purchase guns. I am leading a bipartisan bill focused on gun purchases by people convicted of domestic assault and stalking. I also support increased efforts in the area of mental health.
(d) Not allowing technology to limit our intelligence agencies’ abilities to pursue terrorism investigations when done legally under court order
There must always be a balance between protecting privacy and security. In our country one of the ways we have struck that balance is by requiring a court order before law enforcement can access certain communications of and data on suspects. Law enforcement used to be able to track suspects under court order, but technology installed by communications providers has made it increasingly difficult for local law enforcement to investigate both domestic cases such as murder and rape, and terrorism cases. Of course a court order for accessing communications should always be required, but as I have learned during many hearings and in several meetings with FBI and local law enforcement, getting the order isn’t the problem when the case is strong. Instead, new technology installed by the phone companies and other communications companies has made it technologically impossible to access communications of and data on many of the terror suspects. It is imperative to our national security that companies responsible for promoting this type of encryption work with law enforcement to ensure that legitimate counterterrorism investigations are not unduly hindered. These companies should also take down social media pages that are used to recruit people into terrorism.
(e) Rooting out terrorist recruiting here at home
Thanks to our state and federal law enforcement and our hard-working U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, Minnesota is a state that is taking the lead in rooting out home-grown terrorists in our own country. The U.S. Attorney’s Office currently has more than a dozen ongoing cases involving ISIS recruiting. Much of this recruiting has occurred online. We must aggressively pursue these cases across the country. In fact, we know that at least one of the San Bernardino shooters had been in contact with Islamic extremists online.
Our Muslim community in Minnesota has worked in partnership with our law enforcement to stop kids from being recruited into these networks in the first place. Muslims in our community serve as police officers and on city councils and school boards. While we must do everything to combat extremism and go after those who pose a threat, we must remember all the law-abiding Muslims who live in our own state and in our country. We are proud to have the largest population of Somalis in the U.S. right here in Minnesota. Putting law-abiding citizens on lists based only on their faith or preventing those of certain faiths from entering our country or being part of a refugee program (like permitting only Christian refugees as suggested by some) is not the answer. Those ideas are, in fact, the antithesis of America’s long-standing fundamental belief in religious freedom.
(f) Making sure that resources are available to vet refugees so that program can continue
There is a lot of misinformation out there on our refugee program. Keep in mind that of the around 2,000 Syrian refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. since the Syrian conflict began, none has been arrested for or suspected of terrorism. The post-9–11 refugee vetting process takes up to two years. You can read more about the process here. The Syrian refugees here in our country are mostly families, and several are victims of torture. They are in fact people who are fleeing terrorists like the ones who bombed buildings and killed innocent people in Paris. While I believe we can handle an increased number of Syrian refugees so long as the resources allow for the appropriate vetting, we only accept a small number of people who want to come to this country in the first place.
While most of us have not met the seven Syrian refugees currently in our state, we all have had many good experiences with refugees from other countries. It is a rare Minnesotan who has not met one of our Hmong residents or someone from Liberia or Somalia. You meet them at your workplace, you see them in our hospitals and coffee shops, and in our schools and businesses. They are an important part of our economic and cultural life in Minnesota.
Finally, Congress has a lot of work to do this month. I am pleased that we reached a bipartisan budget deal and thus averted a shutdown. Now we have to finish that budget, and from a homeland and national security perspective, make sure our first responders and military have adequate funding.
But one other thing we need to do is this: fill the vacant positions that hamper our ability to protect our country and work with our allies. Non-controversial nominees for key positions in our military and Treasury and State Departments still need to be confirmed. A number of non-controversial judicial nominees (including one in Minnesota) must be confirmed. How can we have the front line people in place to handle terrorism cases if we don’t confirm the people nominated for these positions? And two of our best allies in Europe and countries key to our fight against extremism − Norway and Sweden − are without U.S. ambassadors. Both nominees for those ambassadorships made it through committee with both Republican and Democratic support and with no objections. Our nominee to Norway is a Minnesotan − Sam Heins − and that key European ally has now been without an ambassador from the United States for nearly 800 days! At this time of great international upheaval, Senators should not be holding up State Department nominees for reasons completely unrelated to the position sought or the credentials of the particular nominee. Non-controversial nominees should be allowed to serve in these positions before the year ends. Our allies − and our enemies − need to see a united and functional American frontline.
I do have one request of you: As you see friends and family over the next few weeks, be thankful for them and for those who protect us, but also remember those in the community around us. The holidays are a good time to be grateful for our neighbors both close by and farther away. They are part of the fabric of life in our community.