Prayer Time

  |      |   

 Hani Hanjour, the al-Qaida terrorist who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, had entered the United States on a student visa to attend the ESL Language Center in Oakland, California. Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband, murdered 14 people and seriously injured 22 others in San Bernardino in 2015, entered on a fiancee visa.

Under President Donald Trump's newly implemented travel ban, as interpreted somewhat bizarrely by the Supreme Court and the State Department, neither of these terrorists would have been barred from coming to the United States, because they could have proved a "bona fide" relationship in this country. And neither would have been barred, regardless, because they were not citizens of the handful of countries targeted by the travel ban.

These enormous holes in a policy, supposedly driven by security concerns, demonstrate the deep confusion into which the Trump administration and the courts have fallen in what was supposed to be an effort to better protect Americans from terrorist attacks. In its desire to win a symbolic political victory, the administration has thrown out more than 15 years of hard-learned professional expertise on how to use intelligence to target and thwart terrorists, and replaced it with a set of crude and useless proxies that will do nothing to protect the country and will damage U.S. leadership in the fight against terrorism.

The United States learned this lesson, painfully, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In the absence of any solid intelligence on future terrorist threats, the Bush administration initially relied on a similar series of rough guesses about where the dangers might lie. It instituted rigorous screening of a particular group – men between the ages of 16 and 65 – coming to the United States from two dozen countries with large Muslim populations.

At least the Bush criteria made some sense. The threats were clearly more acute in the case of young and middle-aged men who had embraced radical Islamist ideologies. But the scheme mostly served to create long delays and embarrassing arrests for thousands of law-abiding travelers from these countries. To its credit, the Bush administration phased it out as soon as it was able to implement more sophisticated, intelligence-driven methods for identifying dangerous travelers.


Today, the United States has the most advanced screening systems in the world. The National Targeting Center – which recently moved to a huge new complex in Sterling, Virginia – has Customs and Border Protection officials working around the clock to screen intended travelers to the country. The center consolidates data on past travel, financial histories and relationships, using both U.S. intelligence and that shared by allies, to identify and halt suspicious travelers. Similar systems are used by the State Department officials in embassies and consulates overseas who grant the visas. The success of targeting is one of the reasons the United States has been far less vulnerable than Europe to Islamic State group-led attacks.

Now consider the State Department's memo implementing the Trump travel ban. First, the restrictions are limited to just six countries – Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – even though the Department of Homeland Security itself concluded that "country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity."


Second, the distinctions as to which particular travelers might pose a threat are truly incoherent. The Supreme Court, in lifting the previous injunctions on the ban, carved out an exception for those with "a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States." So State has instructed its consular officers that not only immediate family but also stepsiblings, as well as sons and daughters-in-law, qualify as "close family" who should generally be admitted despite the ban. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and nieces, however, do not. Coming to give a lecture to a university gets you in; traveling for a week to Disneyland does not. No explanation is offered as to why any of these criteria has anything to do with the threat of terrorism.

All of this could perhaps be dismissed as the result of an administration still struggling to find its feet, and courts that are ruling on unfamiliar issues on which they have historically deferred to the judgments of more competent executive branch officials. But incompetence has a price. Instead of further bolstering the sophisticated U.S. targeting capabilities, State and DHS officials will be distracted trying to assess relationship "bona fides" that tell them nothing about whether an intended visitor might be plotting a terrorist action.

The only valuable bit in the whole useless enterprise is that the Trump administration says it wants to use the temporary ban to see if these countries can be persuaded to share more of what they know about their citizens who wish to visit the United States. While this is a doubtful proposition, given the lack of government control in several of the countries and the strained relations with the U.S. in others, there is no question that better information sharing would help to bolster intelligence-driven targeting.


Hopefully the Trump ban will prove to be a temporary diversion, and the professionals in the State Department and DHS can get back to their very serious jobs of identifying and halting potentially dangerous travelers. But it would help if they had bosses who actually understood the challenges.




© 2015 - 2016 All rights reserved Islam Message