On Refugees, National Security, and Myth-Making Solons

By Dan Cadman on July 12, 2016

Often, when I have a scheduled meeting or appointment with an authority figure—a doctor, a lawyer, an academic or the like—the tiny irreverent guy who lives in the back of my head reminds me that half of them will, as a statistical matter, have been below the fiftieth percentile in their university or postgraduate studies class. It's the little cynic's way of reminding me that, societal regard aside, not even people with a jumble of letters after their names are necessarily the sharpest arrows in the quiver, and that their august pronouncements need to be looked at as carefully as the next man's.

Those thoughts floated through my mind once again when I read an op-ed piece published in the Miami Herald (and perhaps elsewhere) by Michael Hayden and James Stavridis, men of august pedigrees who have served at the highest levels of government.

Their article, “U.S. must lead on refugee crisis”, is a casebook example of ad hominem arguments and sideswipe smears. They categorically assert that the “Leave” proponents in the Brexit campaign were racists and xenophobes, leaving no room for the possibility that the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU) because they wanted control of their own country and futures to reside in the hands of their elected Parliament, not faceless bureaucrats in Brussels over whom they have no control, and whose interests they distrusted to coincide with their own. That sounds pretty close to the reasons the original 13 American colonies broke from Britain, but you'd never know it to read Hayden and Stavridis.

They also argue that, in the context of the United States, it is our duty to take in refugees, especially Syrians, and that doing so somehow enhances national security, although the basis behind that reasoning seems to me to founder into vague tropes that defy ground realities:

The global refugee crisis is straining the resources and infrastructures of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which are hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees. By doing more to host and help refugees, the United States would safeguard the stability of these nations and thereby advance its own national security interests.

Looked at dispassionately, only one of the three nations mentioned, Jordan, is at this point a steadfast American ally, and that country appears to be dealing with the Syrians presently within its borders at least as well as, and probably better than, Turkey.

As for the Turks, they do as convenience dictates: They are ruled by an iron-fisted Islamist who has publicly advocated the spread of Islam through mass migration; they have manipulated the refugee crisis to their advantage, using it to extort money and concessions from the EU; and they face much of their domestic turmoil not solely because of refugee influxes, but also due to their continued war against Kurds (who have shown themselves to be our steadfast allies in the fight against the Islamic State, unlike on-again/off-again Turkey—see here and here).

Lebanon is no friend of the United States. Remember the Beirut Marine barracks bombing? Remember the stranglehold that Hizballah, a designated terrorist organization of Shia jihadists, has on the government and infrastructure of the country? Remember their constant bombardments of Israel from the Bekaa Valley? If Syrian refugees have migrated to Lebanon, it is part and parcel of the split between Sunnis and Shia that has riven Syria as it disintegrates into sects and tribal factions.

Again, you'd never know any of this to read Hayden and Stavridis. No, instead, the public concern over whether or not to accept Syrians, Iraqis or others from these war-torn sectarian hotspots is simply because it's been driven by “anti-Muslim bigotry”. Most amazing of all is this statement:

Those who portray refugee resettlement as a threat to national security, some have presented a fictional depiction of the vetting system. Officials who actually screen refugees before they are resettled know that we can both welcome refugees and safeguard national security.

I wonder if Messrs. Hayden or Stavridis actually know any of the officers who are a part of the government's asylum and refugee corps. I do. Dozens of them, because I spent my career working amongst and side-by-side with them. And not a one of them, not even the most liberal and dedicated among them, would assert as an absolute that the vetting system is foolproof. They know better.

What they would say is that their screening is only as good as the information they receive from intelligence and law enforcement sources, and that if it isn't there to be had, they do the best that they can, but promise nothing while hoping for the best.

They would also tell you that the personal interviews are often conducted under less-than-ideal circumstances in faraway camps, the interview queues are endless, and the time constraints imposed on them rigorous. What is more, their own guidelines specify that the interviews are not to be conducted in a confrontational manner. Thus they are in fact conducting interviews, not interrogations.

None of the refugee officers that I know, or have ever known, would tell you that, using their interpersonal skills and deep experience, they are able to detect a terrorist simply through interview, any more than a law enforcement officer would tell you he could detect a serial killer by looks and conversation alone.

We also have to compare the assertions of Messrs. Hayden and Stavridis that the vetting system is safe with the assessments of other august personages. FBI Director James Comey may be in bad odor right now because of the non-prosecution recommendation about Hillary Clinton's classified email scandal, but he has been forthright in saying he is uncomfortable that the vetting system is adequate—and unlike them, his knowledge is current, and it is his agency that bears the heavy burden of trying to stop terrorist attacks here in the homeland. I would take his word over theirs.

Then there is recent history itself, which clearly shows that the vetting system is not infallible. Iraqi refugees have been arrested in the United States having admitted to being bombmakers who killed American soldiers prior to entry, and the FBI suspects dozens more of having made it through the screening system. They are not the only ones, as our experience with Somali refugees has shown.

Why would it be any different for Syrians? The short answer is that it won't.