Insights from Giving — and Watching — Congressional Testimony

By Todd Bensman on September 18, 2023
Todd Bensman testifying

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As in most important matters of national concern these days, our Congress is hopelessly divided by an ideological Grand Canyon over the event that brought us all together 22 years ago: the 9/11 attack.

That was my takeaway from testifying during the anniversary week of 9/11 as an expert witness before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Integrity, Security, and Enforcement. It was titled “Terrorist Entry at the Southwest Border”, about the broader meaning of 258 suspected terrorist crossings since 2021, and the recent CNN report that an ISIS smuggler brought in a group of Uzbekistanis that FBI agents mounted an urgent hunt for to rule them out as terrorists.

After I testified and observed the proceedings around me some, then spoke and observed some more until it was all over, I left the Rayburn Building knowing for sure that 9/11 national unity moment of 22 years ago was not just dead but buried deep with a shopping center on top.

I was there at the invitation of the majority Republicans, along with former U.S. Secret Service agent Charles Marino and former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott, the three of us having past government service and experience with the topic at hand. All of us and the Republicans led by Chairman Tom Mcclintock (R-Calif.) agreed that nearly 258 illegal aliens on the FBI terror watch list caught crossing the border was the alarm signal for action to stop the current mass migration crisis. We thought that the unprecedented tens of thousands of migrants crossing from nations of high terrorism activity ("special interest aliens") was a blinking red light a la September 10, 2001.

No one on the other side of the new great partisan chasm would agree there was a problematic border crisis, a related terrorism threat, or that the facts we presented were really facts.

In the hearing’s beginning and at the end, Democrats led by Ranking Member Pramilla Jayapal (D-Wash.) dismissed the entire event as Republican political theater about a border crisis that they insist either doesn’t exist or is actually good for the nation. Few Democrats even showed up, and those who did were more interested in speechifying than in questioning any of us.

During my testimony, subcommittee Democrats pointedly turned to cell phones to highlight their disinterest. Same with the other Republican witnesses. I thought my testimony was pretty novel. It held that a litany of recent border counterterrorism failures indicated that Biden’s mass migration crisis had undermined longstanding border counterterrorism programs that had thus far prevented attack from infiltrating terrorists. And that this disintegration has greatly elevated the risk of such a thing actually happening.

Subcommittee Republicans directed special invective at rather unconventional assertions by the Democrats’ non-government witness, open-ended immigration supporter Alex Nowrasteh from the libertarian Cato Institute. Nowrasteh trotted out some pretty novel ideas himself.

He testified, for instance, that the FBI terror watch list is a meaningless danger indicator because he somehow has insider knowledge that most of the people on it are neither terrorists nor dangerous. As evidence pointing to the probable benevolence of migrants on the watch list, Nowrasteh offered that there have been some false-positive hits over the years, and claimed that the FBI unquestioningly accepts almost all nominations by other agencies.

“There is no rigorous test or screening to put people on the list,” the Cato witness insisted, and so we should not worry about those 258 border crossers through July 2023 who were on it.

Also entirely meaningless as a counterterrorism measure, Nowrasteh asserted, was the U.S. homeland security enterprise’s longstanding and highly impactful program of tagging illegal border crossers as “special interest aliens” if they hail from nations where terrorists operate so that they can undergo enhanced security screening and face-to-face interviews before being released. Never mind that this puts Nowrasteh and current Democrats at odds with President Barrack Obama’s DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, who so valued the special interest alien interview program that in just 2016 Johnson ordered an agency-wide effort to improve and elevate its importance.

“A special interest alien is just somebody from a country that has some terrorism in it. It’s not a meaningful metric,” was Nowrasteh’s assessment last week, to nodding Democratic heads.

On this point about special interest aliens, Daily Caller reporter Jennie Taer showed up at the hearing because she could tell from written testimony made public a day earlier that her recent exclusive report about this category of migrants had become a cited point of contention. Her report said that at least 75,000 special interest aliens had swamped the border systems in the last eight months (when the number is usually 3,000 or so annually). Her report establishing the 75,000 benchmark become fighting words because I and the Democratic witness had cited it from opposite points of view.

Taer penned a report afterward noting that her scoop mattered, which it does.

There were plenty of dramatic moments, such as when Texas Rep. Chip Roy went on one of his famous tears aimed at Nowrasteh, clearly outraged by the libertarian’s claim that, because there had been no prior attack from the border, there could be no future one, debilitating mass migration be damned.

Before 9/11, had terrorists ever flown planes full of passengers into buildings full of people, Roy demanded to know of Nowrasteh?

“No,” came the answer, which a glaring Rep. Roy let ferment for several long seconds.

The Democrats would nod in agreement with one another or their witness, then shake their heads or roll their eyes at warnings by the likes of Republican witness Rodney Scott, the 30-year Border Patrol veteran and agency chief under Trump and Biden, when he lamented that mass migration was preventing face-to-face interviews with special interest aliens.

I guess that’s where we are 22 years after 9/11. Hopefully, it won’t take another major attack to bring the country back together. As I said at the end of my opening statement about terrorist border crossers, “Fingers crossed.”