U.S. officials say none of the Paris attackers identified so far were on U.S. watch lists, bolstering concerns about limits to U.S. intelligence that could handicap the refugee vetting process.
The seven identified attackers were not on U.S. watch lists, multiple U.S. officials told CNN, and five of them apparently could have traveled freely to the United States. Only two of the seven were on French watch lists, and consequently would have been flagged had they attempted to travel to the U.S.
The report reinforces concerns the U.S. is unable to properly vet refugees who have applied for resettlement in the states, particularly if they are from Syria. The Obama administration has responded to critics of his plan to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year by saying the vetting process is thorough and time-consuming.
But there are limits to U.S. intelligence that call into question the effectiveness of the process, former FBI and DHS officials tell The Daily Caller News Foundation, such as the lack of intel on the ground in Syria and limits to sharing of information among even U.S. allies. If the databases don’t have the right information, running the names against them obviously won’t be effective.
“This risk is a huge risk,” a former FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agent told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “These are refugees – from a country with poor records of births, identity, etc. They effectively have no progeny. And we are expected to allow them in because of who they say they are?”
Syrian refugees who apply for resettlement in the U.S. would have crossed the border and ended up in a camp in a country such as Jordan or Turkey, a former Department of Homeland Security special adviser for refugee and asylum affairs told TheDCNF. From there they would register with the U.N., when they would give basic information about their identity and circumstances.
If they qualify as a refugee and the U.N. deems it unrealistic they can either return home or be absorbed in the country they are currently located, it will recommend them to another country, such as the U.S. If the U.S. agrees to consider the recommended population, the State Department will conduct a basic interview and get some additional information.
After that the Department of Homeland Security sends specially trained refugee officers to conduct an interview of the individual or family to confirm they’re genuine refugees and make sure they’re credible.
If the family gets through this interview without raising flags or concerns, there is a system of background checks on finger prints and names through FBI, DHS and DoD databases to check for any criminal background, visa or passport issues or any other flags.
What’s problematic about refugees from Syria is the lack of data from the government and on the ground there, the former DHS official told TheDCNF. In Iraq, for example, the DoD compiled a database of information collected in raids, fingerprints found on unidentified explosive devices, records of natives who worked for the U.S. military or embassy, and other intelligence.
But there’s nothing comparable in Syria to check refugee information against, because of the lack of a ground presence and multiple conflicts going on. Neither the Bashar al-Assad regime or the Islamic State of course has reason to give the U.S. what records, if any, do exist on these refugees.
“It’s not like the U.S. refugee officer can call up the Syrian department of vital statistics and ask for a marriage certificate or call the police department,” Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration studies, told TheDCNF. “We’re going on trust with many of these people.”
Referring to the lack of intelligence on the Paris attackers, Vaughan added: “None of them were in our databases, in part because of limited information sharing. They’re not so comprehensive as the administration would like us to believe.”
Officials also told CNN U.S. analysts have been combing through emails, phone calls and other intelligence, but have turned up no communications by any of the attackers, apparently because they used encrypted communications to avoid detection by authorities.
The Paris attackers are believed to have traveled to Syria, but were not all flagged on their return. Officials told CNN the sheer number of citizens who leave for Syria and Iraq creates a processing backlog, and as a result not everyone who returns raises flags.
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