The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.S. lets in four times as many suspected terrorists as it keeps out

A 2014 photo shows Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook, as they passed through O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Malik entered the United States on a visa. (Associated Press)

The Obama administration insists that it is safe to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees because we have "very extensive screening procedures" in place. "It involves our intelligence community, our national counterterrorism center, extensive interviews, vetting them against all the available information," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes recently declared.

He left out one fact: Those screening procedures are so broken that, State Department records show, they let in more than four times as many suspected terrorists as they keep out.

The State Department admitted to Congress last week that it had revoked the visas of 9,500 individuals since 2001 who were believed to have either engaged in terrorist activities or were associated with a terrorist organization. Think about what that means: Nearly 10,000 people considered too dangerous to enter the United States because of suspected terrorist activity or association were mistakenly granted visas to lawfully enter the country. They successfully penetrated our defenses, beat our screening system and got their hands on U.S. visas.

Worse still, after officials caught their mistake and revoked the visas after the fact, they lost track of the visa holders. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, pressed Michele Thoren Bond, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, to explain what had happened to the 9,500. She replied: “I don’t know.”

We don’t know where these 9,500 individuals are, or how many of them — if any — are in the United States today.

That’s bad enough. But the story gets worse.

An examination of State Department records by American Enterprise Institute researcher Justin Lang found that since 2001, the State Department had denied visas to just 2,231 individuals because the applicant was suspected of terrorist ties or activity. Yet during that same period, the State Department granted U.S. visas to 9,500 people who it later figured out posed a terrorist threat — and had to go back and retroactively revoke those individuals' visas.

The means our screening system is so bad, it let through more than four times as many suspected terrorists as it stopped. If a National Hockey League goalie let in more than four times as many goals as he blocked, he would be fired.

And let’s be clear: Those 9,500 visa revocations are just the suspected terrorists we know about. How many more terrorists are out there who also beat our screening system but officials did not figure out their mistake and revoke the visas?

I can name at least one: Tashfeen Malik. She never had her visa revoked. We learned she was a terrorist only after she and her husband massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. She beat our screening system, got into our country and carried out a terrorist attack.

So did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 so-called underwear bomber who nearly blew up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. His father walked into a U.S. embassy and reported that his son was involved with terrorists. Yet the Wall Street Journal reports that the State Department "didn't revoke his visa after Mr. Abdulmutallab's father alerted U.S. officials to his son's potential radicalization." How many more terrorist visa holders like Tashfeen Malik and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are out there today?

Our screening system is badly broken, and we have an administration that is more concerned with enforcing political correctness than protecting the American people. We know that terrorists use social media to spread propaganda, recruit operatives and plan attacks. Yet MSNBC reports that in 2011, officials in the Department of Homeland Security proposed a policy of scouring social media of visa applicants to look for terrorist ties. The proposal went through a year-long review and was about to be issued as official policy — when it was quashed by senior officials.

So when you hear Obama officials claim to have “extensive screening procedures” in place, remember that they considered and rejected a policy of checking social media accounts of visa applicants for terrorist ties. This was not an oversight. It was a conscious decision.

Despite this record, President Obama says Republicans are “betraying our values” for their reluctance to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees. Perhaps he should keep his moral outrage in check until his government finds the nearly 10,000 missing terrorists — and fixes a screening system that lets through more terrorists than it catches.

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