On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, questioned Administration officials about what steps are being taken to strengthen our Visa Waiver Program in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Portman called for a thorough review of Department of Homeland Security and State Department vetting procedures to ensure that no terrorists or individuals with links to Islamist extremist groups make it into the United States.

Today’s roundtable follows up on Portman’s questioning last month regarding what steps are being taken to ensure terrorists do not exploit the U.S. Syrian refugee resettlement program.

Excerpts of Portman’s remarks are below and the full exchange can be found here.

“…My question goes to this fundamental issue of the fact that our security here in this country is only as good as the data that’s being provided to us by our visa waiver partners. So these 38 countries have different databases. Some are better than others, as you all said this morning. So drilling down a little bit further on that, let’s assume that the numbers are right – that there are about 5,000 foreign fighters from western European countries alone, the bulk of them coming from France, the UK and Belgium. That means there are more than 5,000, total, from those 38 countries? I still haven’t gotten a good number on that so if you have one today we’d like to have it.

“If you don’t mind, let me ask you a further question … If you have a porous border with Turkey, as we have in our borders with Mexico and Canada, and you have the ability to go back and forth without being identified through that porous border, and you have thousands of foreign fighters who are leaving Europe to go into the battle … how do we know the information is accurate? In other words, they wouldn’t show up in the pre-clearance or the ESTA data necessarily because they are walking across a border, and we certainly see the refugees going the other way…How do you account for that and how good is the data?

“What I’m getting at, though, is the gaps. So, in a testimony before this committee 7 weeks ago approximately, the director of the FBI and the director of the Counter-Terrorism center both said the same thing: we have gaps. And they were referring specifically to the gaps in Syria because we have nothing on the ground there to be able to collect information. We don’t have a relationship with the government, even as compared to Iraq we don’t have the data. My question is, I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a large number of people, but as we have learned with terrorism it doesn’t matter that it’s a large number or a small number, any number is significant. We have to be right every time. They have to be right once. So are there people that are going to go across this border, that’s porous, where there’s no means to identify them, come back to a visa waiver country, and us not be able to have that data in their system? Are you saying, Commissioner Wagner, that because we use other data sources, including our own, that that is unlikely to occur, or are you saying that we’ve only got what we’ve got which is that our security is going to be based on ultimately the best information that we get from these countries and there’s going to be some gaps?

“We’re glad that the Visa Waiver Program has resulted in us getting better information and better data. On the other hand, I don’t think you can tell us here today that the Visa Waiver Program requires a more strenuous screening than the Visa program. In other words, the Visa Waiver Program is there for a reason – it’s to facilitate travel. We support and facilitate business travel and so on. What we’re asking is, given the fact that the requirements are not as stringent, even though more data was collected because of it, what do we about this potential gap and specifically the foreign fighters who can go back and forth to a certain extent without identification?”


Staff report