The Center for Immigration Studies unveiled a new database of national security vetting failures at a recent panel discussion. This database is the first known collection of preventable federal government vetting failures that enabled the entry of foreign nationals who threatened and harmed American national interests and public safety. The information collected in the database offers an opportunity to study and understand the failures, with an eye toward preventing such failures in the future.
The number of visa security failures already in the database illustrates the link between national security and immigration policy. To discuss this, the March 8 panel was comprised of individuals with experience in three institutions involved in vetting those coming to this country: intelligence, DHS, and the State Department.
Todd Bensman, the Center's Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow and author of “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History” and “America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration”. Prior to joining CIS, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border.
Phillip Linderman, retired State Department senior Foreign Service officer with experience in working with foreign governments, as well as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence partners, on matters such as visa and passport fraud, human trafficking, terrorist travel, watchlisting, and identity information collection and use
Robert Law, Director of the Center for Homeland Security and Immigration at the America First Policy Institute and a former senior official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Mark Krikorian (Moderator), is the Center’s Executive Director.
Date and Location:
March 8, 2023
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States.
And one of the impacts, obviously, immigration has is potentially harming or threatening national security. And to deal with that, the federal government has long tried to vet people to whom it gives visas and green cards and citizenship and what have you – background checks, that kind of thing. We’re assured that this is, you know, a thorough process when politicians talk about it, and yet it’s not foolproof.
And so what we are releasing today is a database of failures of vetting. And this is important not just sort of to point at and make fun of people or blame people or anything like that, but rather to try to learn from failures how to improve this screening function, which is so essential, in the future.
And so to do this we have, actually, a very good panel put together.
Todd Bensman is the author of the database, who developed, looked for all the information. He’s going to explain what it is. Todd is the national security fellow here at the Center; author of a new book, “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History.” But that’s not what the panel is about. It’s about a project on this database of vetting failures. Todd was a counterterrorism analyst at the Department of Public Safety in Texas, and so he has deep experience in this.
And to provide perspectives – two important perspectives on this issue are Phil Linderman, a retired 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service, the State Department, who actually among other duties dealt with these kind of things – watchlisting and what have you. And so he’s going to talk a little bit about the State Department’s role in this vetting process, which is, obviously, essential in, you know, people applying for visas and what have you.
And then Rob Law, who’s the director of the Center for Homeland Security and Immigration at the America First Policy Institute and a CIS alumnus, was at USCIS – the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – during the Trump administration. And that – USCIS is really sort of the other major player in this process of vetting people from abroad, and so he’s going to give us a little perspective on what USCIS’s role is.
And so we – if you have questions, email me. That would probably be the best way to do it. I am at M-S-K – that’s Mark Steven Krikorian – [email protected]. And I will be checking my email. I will not be bored or playing a game on my phone; I’ll be checking to see if people have submitted questions. And after the three presentations, we will take questions.
So, Todd, take it away.
TODD BENSMAN: OK. Thank you for having – for having me and the panel. And thanks, guys, for coming out.
We’re here for three reasons today. For one thing, America is prone to forgetfulness. We have a short attention span after the media goes home. And when we have a national security problem, we tend to just kind of move on and not really know whether it was fixed or demand that it was fixed.
Two, for economic health and strong relationships with the rest of the world, America depends on a steady transnational flow of people in and out of the country, coming and going with their ideas and their goods and services and business, et cetera. The need for corridors in and out of America has to be balanced, though, with the need for national security, and it’s this constant kind of tension between our economic needs and our, you know, need to be safe.
Which leads us to the third reason why we’re here today, which is that maybe we’re too often tolerant of not finding that balance, even 20 years – more than 20 years after the 9/11 attacks sparked a whole-of-government reformation in the way it vets foreigners who use our admittance processes to enter.
So short attention span, forgetfulness, human error, faulty processes, and the vast volumes of immigrant and nonimmigrant visitors that we want still allows the entry of people who mean to do us harm, of foreign terrorists who are coming in hoping to kill us but could have been found out, of human-rights violators who are hoping to beat justice for their terrible atrocities and hide among us but could have been detected, and of spies hoping to steal our brightest innovations who defeat immigration security vetting systems but who reasonably could have been found out ahead of time, and of violent criminals.
And so, despite these great strides that we’ve made since 9/11 to defeat and to reform our systems, the Center for Immigration Studies publishes a database of immigration security vetting failures today. Its purpose is to force remembrance of these continuing instances so we don’t forget. It’s not as easy to forget if it’s in public like this. And this for far too many terrorists, spies, and other threats who come in from abroad using our systems and defeating our vetting processes that we put in place after 9/11.
Another purpose of the database is to pinpoint where the failure was and which agency was responsible, and let that stand in front of the public to remind the nation’s vetting system repairmen and -women that even after the reporters go home, if any ever bothered to arrive in the first place, that these failures still must be discussed, debated, and solutions implemented and then reported to us. Twenty-two years have passed since the 9/11 attacks caused the U.S. national security apparatus and federal agencies responsible for providing this protection to reform the whole immigration security vetting system from top to bottom. Our security enterprise put its shoulder and back into this, and they made great progress over these years, but – and they did make it harder for terrorists to defraud the ways into America on bogus visas and lies. But we keep experiencing lapse after lapse that tell us this tough work is not complete.
Let me give you an example from recently. Consider Malik Faisal Akram, who is in this database. It was Akram who in December 2021 flew into America and then the next month, January 2022 – just a little more than a year ago – staged a kidnapping/hostage-taking attack on a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue in Dallas – in the Dallas area during Friday night religious services. He pulled his gun, claimed he had an explosives belt, and then demanded that he would kill them unless the Biden government released an infamous convicted terrorist who was being held in a federal prison nearby, in Fort Worth. After a long standoff, the hostages go away and Malik Akram died when FBI agents stormed his redoubt.
Akram had been on the British MI5 intelligence service radar for a long time as a problematic threat with a long history of sympathy for jihadist ideology. He’d openly praised the 9/11 attacks right after they happened. He served one spell behind bars when a British imam reported him for concerning behavior, disrupting Friday night prayer services. He was a frequent visitor to Pakistan with connections to the controversial Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat. And after a 2012 conviction for theft, he reportedly conducted himself in an extreme manner while attending the jail’s mosque and one observer noted that he was obsessed with Islam. He was twice referred to the counterterrorism prevention program, the last time as recently as 2019.
So how could someone so known to British intelligence of having this kind of background just fly into America at will this late into the reforms after 9/11 and conduct an attack like this a week or two later? Well, the probable answers can be exhumed based on what’s in the public record. Akram entered the U.S. in accordance with the fast track visa waiver travel system between Great Britain and 40 countries and the United States. You can basically go on this thing – it’s called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization – in a matter of minutes, put your name, enter your – maybe pay a fee – it’s all online – and get a trip to the U.S. out of this without having to have a visa or go through that process. But this requires that travelers pass a criminal background check, and the Department of Homeland Security also conducts paperless electronic checks of those national security databases. But the British had taken Akram off their watchlist, so there was nothing for the Americans to find if they ran his name and information through it.
But Akram also had a disqualifying or at least delaying British criminal history. So this was really available for database checks. It should have flagged. We don’t know really why his criminal history didn’t flag. If it would have flagged, we would have probably found the extremism aspect of his background. But we did not. He had a lot of criminal history – theft, harassment, et cetera – but it just didn’t happen. This was detectable criminal history. And he was able to breach two sets of borders, and the result was a terrifying 10-hour ordeal for innocent worshippers before he was neutralized, shall we say.
So how often does this happen and what should we do about it? Those questions are left unanswered. The DHS said that they were going to investigate, but we have heard nothing about what they did or didn’t do since this terrible act happened.
So now let me tell you a little bit about the database. It’s seeded right now at the moment at 47 instances of avoidable, unnecessary security vetting failure. The database reflects a more diverse range of human threat. It’s not just about terrorism. If it – if it impacts on our national interests or our national security or public safety, it goes into the database if we can. In it are spies, warlords, and to date one child rapist.
The Center’s intention is to grow this database. We’ll add to it as necessary and when there’s sufficient information to be able to do so. We are asking for public and government officials to contact us confidentially with information that may not be included in this database or new cases that we missed. There’s a tab in the database where you can go in and contact us.
Each failure case lays bare one or more likely repairable defects in the array of security screening policies and systems across government agencies, but two agencies that process the vast bulk of all nonimmigrant and immigrant benefit applications are responsible for most of the failures that we have in this database.
One is the State – the Department of State’s Office of Consular Affairs, responsible for various kinds of temporary visas that are supposed to be vetted overseas. We have Mr. Phil Linderman here to help us understand that, with long experience – 30 years – in the State Department, to provide more information.
The other is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for refugees overseas, citizenship, lawful permanent residency, and plenty of other duties as well. For that we have Rob Law here, who has worked in USCIS during the last administration and is up to date on a lot of this.
But other agencies bear responsibility, such as the Department of Defense and in one case the ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, who is involved in asylum processes.
The database is designed to be user friendly and searchable. A cornerstone feature of the database when you go in there are analytical narratives that encapsulate the findings or likely failed points in the systems and processes. The database is searchable by name, nation, responsible agency. It provides a sense of how long a suspect was in the country before detection, and that’s as a way to frame how long the threat was able to persist before we discovered it and neutralized it.
For transparency, visitors and researchers and anybody who goes on this thing will have access to all of the primary research materials that were used in the analyses. You’ll find court records. You’ll find media reports. Government reports are all in there. We want this to be transparent.
What visitors will find is how agencies failed in each case, what kind of visas or applications were typically involved, what species of criminality or threat was involved. And just to give you a couple of examples of what is in this, is that we know that in the cases that we have so far – we will add to this – that 32 of the cases had at least one failure identified – avoidable failure, in our opinion; 10 cases with at least two failures; and five cases in which there were three failures. And there’s debate internally about whether some of them might have gone as high as seven or eight failures, but we’re playing it conservative here.
The most frequent visas or immigration benefit types where the failures occurred were lawful permanent residence applications, change of status, refugee applications – there were 22 of those. Refugee applications, there were 19 of those. Temporary visas of various types, 17 of those. And naturalized citizenship, 15 of those. There’s supposed to be security vetting going on for all of these.
All right. Of all the time for – between entry and discover, the average for all of them is about five years and eight months. That’s a little skewed by the war criminals, who tended to be able to be inside the United States for really long times before they were finally outed and removed. Most of these are going to be terrorism-related cases; those are an average of five years. Human-rights cases, again, 19 years on average. And espionage-related cases, three years and five months on average.
I’m not sure how my time is here, but I did want to –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, quick.
MR. BENSMAN: Yeah. I did want to note one thing, that in recent years, especially during the Trump administration, we heard a lot about “extreme vetting.” I put air quotes around those. We don’t refer to that as “extreme vetting.” But the administration – the Trump administration did put in place by executive proclamation the National Vetting Center. That vetting center is still a going enterprise. The Biden administration came in, as we know, and reversed a great many of the prior administration’s initiatives. But in this case, commendably, the administration maintained the National Vetting Center. It is still expanding. I report on what it's doing in the paper that’s surrounding the database. And we can talk more about what they are doing, but the work that they are doing, I think, is – it all moves toward improvement of vetting by using – by bringing together more database – classified database systems into one room, and adding more kinds of visas to run checks through that and more kinds of immigration benefits and names through that.
And so, with that, I’ll, I guess, pass the dais.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Todd. I failed to mention where you find the database. It’s at CIS.org, our homepage. You’ll find it right there.
And I don’t know if you mentioned, Todd, these are all cases post-2008, which you picked because a lot of the vetting improvements after 9/11 were basically fully in place by then. So in other words, this isn’t some concentration camp guard who got in in 1951.
MR. BENSMAN: That’s right.
MR. KRIKORIAN: These are more recent cases.
MR. BENSMAN: That’s right. And also, in 2007 and (200)8 there were certain additional reforms that were put in place, so it was selected anything from 2008 to present.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So now Phil Linderman is going to tell us about the State Department’s role in this vetting process. Phil?
PHILLIP LINDERMAN: OK. Thank you, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the invitation to talk about a very important topic, the database. I know it’s a start. It’s an important tool for policymakers and for the public to be aware about these cases and their impact on our national security.
When I was in government, I was in the Consular Affairs Bureau for much of my time in the State Department. We, in fact, did wargame cases like this in training sessions and our own process of reviewing, particularly after 9/11, how secure and effective our visa-security procedures actually were. And it’s an imperfect process.
But what this database shows and what our experience shows, one, is the power of watchlisting, particularly biometrics. These cases, we’ll talk about a couple of them in my period here. The effect of a name that was captured, as they say in the trade, a known or suspected terrorist – a KST – and that identity was captured and watchlisted with biometrics is a very effective tool. We’ll see why it failed here in a couple of the cases, but that I want to highlight.
For government policymakers, there’s always controversy about watchlisting, how it’s done. Sometimes it’s overly zealous. But when we can create effective watchlisting records based on biometrics, we have an incredibly valuable tool on national security.
The second tool – a very important tool – is simply interviewing and having contact with, in the case of the State Department, visa applicants. That’s why we place people in forward positions in consular sections in embassies and consulates abroad. That’s why we typically interview all the applicants. It is unrecorded – and unknowable, frankly – how many potentially nefarious foreign applicants who wanted to get a visa and were turned down not because we caught them with our watchlisting information, because they were unknown to us; and not, frankly, even because we identified them when we interviewed them; but we found that their story didn’t make sense, that there was gaps in the story, and the consular officer who did the interview under our visa law had the authority simply to turn them down, not because they had hard information that he may have been a KST or a criminal or whatever, simply because the story didn’t make sense.
The value of this interviewing, contact with applicants, is huge. Unfortunately, right now State Department is besieged worldwide because of the COVID pandemic, the massive backlogs. It is important, nevertheless, I suggest to colleagues that we take the time to still do the interviewing, to live with the backlogs, because it goes to the question of one of the pillars in our security, which is to talk to people, find out why they’re coming to the country.
You know, during the Obama administration there was Executive Order 13597, which among other things commanded that consular sections abroad manage and complete the visa process and application screening and interviewing within three weeks. This was done, pressure from the tourism industry, the universities, higher education, et cetera, all the forces – political special interests in the United States – who want fast and quick visa issuances. It’s important for the White House to push back against that. The Obama executive order created an artificial timeline to hurry the processing of visas that was, in my judgment, unwise.
This administration has not – the current administration has not done that, replicated that, simply because the backlogs are too vast in nonimmigrant visa processing worldwide for it to do it. But this administration had been not – has been unprecedented in some of the steps that it’s taken in the context of opening our borders.
So, again, keep in mind those two – those two principles of effective visa security/travel security. Our system is multilayered, and we’ll go into a couple of cases to show how it worked from the – from the database.
There’s the case of a Saudi national. Alfallaj is his name. He, in 2011, received an F-2 visa. He was accompanying his spouse, who received the principal F-1 student visa to study in the United States. Now, in 2011, to set the scenario, 10 years post-9/11, you would have had in Riyadh not only the original visa interview by State Department – and we keep people in these countries. They know the language, the culture, so they have some idea of the dynamics. You have a Saudi man going with his wife – you know, keep in mind that society – to be second fiddle, perhaps in one interpretation, for years as his wife studied. I am sure that that scenario would have been scrubbed in an interview. But nevertheless. Alfallaj was successful. He got his visa.
After 9/11, the law put in place in many overseas embassies and consulates the so-called Visa Security Program, visa security units. This is a DHS program in which DHS stations security specialists to work on security travel in foreign embassies. They would have seen this file as well. They would have approved it and let it go through. There’s two failures there.
Then this individual travels to Oklahoma, where his wife was a student. He does whatever he does for several years. He’s off our radar, apparently, but he does travel back and forth. CBP would have seen him in at least two entry points, one when he first went into the United States and secondly when he came back. The record’s incomplete, but I suspect he traveled multiple times. He would have been fingerprinted. You had all of these instances when he did the – all visa applicants go through and give fingerprints and a photograph for facial recognition reviews, et cetera. So you’ve had multiple failures.
In 2016, this individual decides he wants to enroll in a flight training school in Oklahoma. This is right out of the playbook that Mohammed Atta used, the ringleader of the 9/11 plot. And in fact, after that the U.S. government established something that was called the Alien Flight Student Program, run by TSA. So this individual had to be vetted again and approved for this flight training program. Never mind that he’s not on the right visa. He was on an F-2 visa. It doesn’t give him permission to go and study like this, but apparently that was not a trigger. We don’t get anything out of those prints.
It's only later, a year later, after Alfallaj had completed his flight training program – this guy had a pilot’s license – that somehow he pings with a hit on a review of his prints and he suddenly is known to us as someone with a record. And in fact, it’s a very serious record. He was – his prints came to us from an operation in Afghanistan, in Kandahar, where latent prints were found on documents but 15 years later those documents were cleaned up, those prints were found, they were integrated into the system, and we were able to identify this guy before he got into an airplane and did any kind of damage in our country.
You see multiple failures there, but what it says, again, is the power of biometrics watchlisting. This guy was clever enough in all of his interviews and interactions with American officials to get through and not be pulled out as a suspect.
MR. BENSMAN: And, Phil, in case you – you might plan to note this, but the fingerprints were found in the same training camps that all of the al-Qaida operatives who did 9/11, or some of them, trained in at the same time that they trained, in the year 2000.
MR. LINDERMAN: Correct. I mean, from the record that we have, and we have an affidavit from the FBI JTTF agent who followed this case. Now, he put together the case based on the prints. Apparently, in the business of prints you have to clean up latent prints, get them into the system. This would have been in the FBI fingerprint database, presumably. It’s routinely pinged for all visa travelers and all LPR and other asylum cases that come to USCIS. But we don’t have the prints in the system, we’re not going to get a match.
It goes to the question, since 9/11 FBI, DHS, even DOD have set up a biometric center in West Virginia so that they can move rapidly on cleaning up prints, but this case took, apparently, 15 years. It is – it goes, again, to the issue of how it is difficult sometimes to detect a traveler who has nefarious plans against us. Take the example going back to Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 scenario, or even this fellow Alfallaj. They were capable enough to go through multiple layers, multiple travel points, multiple encounter points, and to apparently hide their intentions.
Let’s turn to another –
MR. BENSMAN: They did catch him in the end plotting to –
MR. LINDERMAN: Yeah. Yeah. So to finish the story, how did we catch him? Presumably, the prints are run regularly against the database holdings of all travelers and visa – and visa persons – and in this case, the flight school applicants to the TSA program. In one of those routine runnings, this guy’s prints, which had been ingested into the system probably in 2016 or (20)17 – after the flight school, after the visa, after the travel – then they come up. The FBI pursues the case with the JTTF team in that part of the country, in Oklahoma, and they do their own investigation. They go back to his original visa application and they find a telephone number that also shows up in the material that was confiscated by the U.S. military in Kandahar. So you have a telephone number.
MR. BENSMAN: At the al-Qaida training camp.
MR. LINDERMAN: At the al-Qaida training camp. So this guy was very much invested into an al-Qaida scenario. Whether he, in fact, harbored intentions to do us harm, the circumstantial evidence is hugely against him. In any event, he should not have had a visa and he should not have been permitted to travel multiple times into the United States and out.
A similar case, if I have time for it, is –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Two minutes.
MR. LINDERMAN: Two minutes?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Two minutes.
MR. LINDERMAN: So, quickly, a look in the record on the case of Muhammad Masood. Here you have an H-1B visa holder. He went to work in the – in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. This guy very clearly with – held back his intentions through interviews, again, just like Alfallaj. He only becomes known to us when, apparently, according to the record he was using social media in an encrypted form and revealed his terrorist intentions. Again, the JTTF was there. They investigated. They found out. You can find this guy’s information on LinkedIn. He had studied at Cambridge University in the U.K. He had traveled internationally multiple times. He had been selected for the very – the very rigorous Mayo Clinic program. And he still harbored terrorist intent. And we were only able to match this – to find this guy with the use of social media and follow-up enforcement in the United States. The lessons are very clear about the power of watchlisting to help inform our encounters.
MR. BENSMAN: And he was – he was plotting to attack fellow doctors at the Mayo Clinic for a time, and then he decided to go overseas and he tried to go overseas to join the jihad to patch up the wounded in the battlefield.
MR. LINDERMAN: Yeah. There’s no doubt that Masood was a determined terrorist. It is less clear about Alfallaj. But both cases are examples of individuals that we want our border screening to keep out of the country.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Phil.
And our last speaker is Rob Law. He’s going to talk about USCIS, sort of the stateside part of this vetting process. Rob?
ROBERT LAW: Thank you, Mark. And it’s great to be back at the Center, or as you say the original CIS.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter.)
MR. LAW: Todd, I want to congratulate you on this database. It’s unfortunate that a vetting failures database needed to even be created, but you’ve done commendable work identifying numerous instances where terrorists, bad actors, and fraudsters were able to obtain U.S. immigration benefits that they should not have received.
As was previously mentioned, I had the distinct honor of holding several leadership positions at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration, which is the part – the part of the Department of Homeland Security that administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, including naturalization, adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident or green-card status, a number of temporary guest-worker programs, asylum, and refugee status. Some of these benefits go with an in-person interview. Others are just based off of the paper application or petition. This is also the agency that pursued a biometrics regulation – that, unfortunately, was not finalized before the change of administrations – that, if it had gone into effect, would have empowered all aspects of the Department of Homeland Security, including CBP and ICE, to utilize and modernize all forms of biographic and biometric information for screening and vetting, a useful tool that unfortunately didn’t make it across the finish line.
This panel could not be timelier. Earlier this month marked the 20th anniversary of the creation of DHS. Congress created DHS in response to the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. While 9/11 is often thought of as an intelligence failure – and it was – it was also an immigration failure.
As the executive summary of the 9/11 Commission’s report put it, quote, “The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.” Another quote from the executive summary is, and more precisely, “Protecting borders was not a national security issue before 9/11.” For example, the 9/11 hijackers used passports that were fraudulently manipulated or contained indicators of extremism. They made detectable false statements on visa applications and to border agents to be allowed into the country, and they violated U.S. immigration laws while in the country.
As the focus of today’s panel demonstrates, the U.S. government remains plagued by the same screening and vetting failures that allowed 19 terrorists into our country 21 years ago to execute their deadly scheme. An illustrative example from Todd’s report is the case El Mehdi Semlali Fathi. This Moroccan-born foreign national was allowed into the U.S. in 2001 on an F-1 – excuse me, in 2007 on an F-1 student visa, but he failed out of college after just one semester. Instead of departing the country, he remained here unlawfully. Two years later, he was arrested for trespassing, transferred over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE – custody, and put into removal proceedings.
Now, of course, the fact that I’m mentioning him here today means that the story did not end with a prompt deportation in 2009. That’s because he claimed that if he were returned to Morocco he would be persecuted by the Moroccan government due to his student activist activities. Fathi was released from detention by an immigration judge in order to apply for asylum. While it’s unclear when he was radicalized – if that was something that should have been detected at the student visa process time or at some point after that – the asylum claim was completely bogus, and it bought him the time that he needed to plot bombing attacks on federal buildings in the United States. Evidence of this fraud should have been detected, but he was still nonetheless granted asylum in 2013, putting him on an expedited path to U.S. citizenship.
Fortunately, a separate FBI investigation resulted in his capture prior to his bombing plots materializing. In 2014, he pled guilty to perjury on his asylum application after the FBI – and not DHS – exposed the asylum fraud by, as one example, comparing the inconsistencies between his student visa application and his asylum application. In fact, the FBI even caught him on a recording bragging to someone about his fraudulent asylum application and it being approved.
Just briefly, I will touch on another vetting failure that came from 2007 involving a Somali who was living in a Kenyan camp and seeking refugee status in the United States. What viewers may not know is that the primary vetting of refugees is conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. USCIS refugee officers then interview applicants who have passed the UNHCR screening. In this case, the foreign national lied about his tribal affiliation, essentially saying that he was from one part of Somalia and was with one particular clan and not the clan that he was actually a part of; in doing so, concealed or attempted to conceal that he was connected to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. The fraud went undetected. He was granted refugee status and resettled in the United States in 2008, where he almost immediately began conspiring with terrorist organizations. A year later, the fraud was missed again when he was granted lawful permanent resident status. It wasn’t until 2014 when an FBI counterterrorism investigation uncovered his ties to al-Shabaab and his immigration fraud. A federal judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison for the fraud and for supporting terrorism.
Now, I chose to highlight these two cases because there are parallels to current Biden administration policies that are increasing the likelihood of more bad actors slipping through the cracks. In the first case, the alien filed a fraudulent asylum claim in order to delay his removal from the U.S. This, of course, is the very tactic that is being exploited by illegal aliens today that are apprehended at the southern border. When policies allow aliens to remain here for years and not be held in detention facilities for merely using buzzwords like “asylum” or “credible fear,” it incentivizes fraudulent, frivolous, and otherwise non-meritorious claims. Some are doing it for economic reasons, but there are also bad actors in that pile as well.
This, in turn, overwhelms the system in the development of so-called backlogs. As pressure comes down from the top to clear these backlogs – and that’s whether we’re talking about asylum or lawful immigration benefits – adjudicators are pressure and put under unrealistic quotas to hit. This incentivizes more approvals because these are less burdensome outcomes than denials, which require the creation of a separate memo explaining why the benefit is being denied.
The second case is interesting for several reasons. First, it was my impression from my time at USCIS that the refugee corps was too reliant on UNHCR, too deferential. Now, while UNHCR does play a helpful role in rooting out some meritless and ineligible claims, at the end of the day a nongovernmental entity should not be the leader of the screening and vetting for any population that is being allowed into the United States. Additionally, this case involved a foreign national from a failed state, in this case Somalia. This makes any documents inherently more difficult to verify and identities easy to mask.
The locking in of his bogus background is similar to what we are currently dealing with as a result of the Biden administration’s unlawful Operation Allies Welcome parole program, which allowed around a hundred thousand unvetted and visa-less Afghans into the U.S. after the botched withdrawal from Kabul. Scathing OIG reports from both the Department of Defense and DHS have found that the Biden administration ordered federal employees to accept at face value any story that these Afghan nationals were telling them. For example, there are a disproportionate number of them who have a January 1st birthday because that was the date that they were told to put into the systems – the federal government identity systems if no other date was provided.
Briefly returning to the 9/11 Commission’s report, it stated very concisely: “The nation was unprepared.” Sadly and concerningly, we seem to have reverted to a September 10th, 2001 mindset. The adjudicators that I met with at USCIS want to get each case right. The failures materialized from expansionist immigration policies that create unreasonable workloads and unfair expectations to adjudicate quickly. I would argue that it is far better from a national security and immigration integrity standpoint for the adjudicators to be empowered to take the time they need to feel 100 percent confident in each outcome.
I look forward to a constructive dialogue about screening and vetting failures and the policies and tools needed to protect the homeland.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Rob.
Let me remind people that if you have questions you can email me at M-S-K – that’s Mark Steven Krikorian – [email protected]. Or, if you’re on Twitter, you can direct-message me at @MarkSKrikorian. You can also follow me, if you like snark and sarcasm, for the future.
I had one observation. And then, since I’m the one paying for the mics, I had a question, too. My one observation was both – Phil and Rob, both of you brought up that regular immigration enforcement is also a way of screening out people. In other words, there’s vetting where you’re checking are your fingerprints, did they show up in Iraq on a bomb, that kind of stuff. Essential work, but regular immigration enforcement – and the example that really jumped out at me from years ago was a journalist got the visa applications for I think it was 15 or 16 of the 9/11 terrorists. State Department found out about it and destroyed the others before he could get them. It was – it was kind of a sleuth story and they were published in National Review. And not one of those people should have gotten a visa. I mean, it doesn’t matter what they were doing. They wrote down, you know, where are you going? Marriott Hotel, New York. Well, there’s like 14 of them in New York. It doesn’t mean anything. I mean, it was, just, again, standard immigration vigilance – normal, unrelated to security – actually serves an important security function.
And a question I had I guess for anybody, but specifically the USCIS and State: Do they do after-action reports? In other words, that’s kind of, I think, in the military terminology something that happens, you study what happened. This is kind of what we’re trying to do with this database, is provide a basis for learning from mistakes. Do you guys – have you – when you were there, did you encounter that kind of thing – OK, this screw-up happened; let’s reverse-engineer it and see why and what we can do about it? Phil, if you want to –
MR. LINDERMAN: Sure. Absolutely. After 9/11, it was a catastrophe, and particularly that hit State Department. And some of the lack of vigilance like you just described, Mark, was rigorously reviewed.
As I mentioned in the beginning, we did create numerous – recreate the cases that we knew from our own experience, including the 9/11 cases, and use them as training tools to work with new officers who would be adjudicating visas. The process, happily, has changed considerably since 9/11 in that it’s much more electronically controlled and there’s much more oversight in the adjudication of a visa, starting from the case being taken in, fingerprints, facial photographs taken, et cetera. The electronic – the application is electronic. It’s reviewed by a number of people. There’s more oversight. There’s more – there’s more vigilance.
But to the core point, I think that’s absolutely right. That’s why I mentioned that interviews are so important. This is the moment that State Department interacts with visa applicants abroad. They go in, they have a – they have a short interview. It could be two, three minutes; it can be a little bit longer. State Department, as well, as fraud-prevention units post-9/11 in almost all of its consular sections abroad to partnership with Consular Affairs and diplomatic security to provide additional investigation on cases. So we cannot underestimate the value of having this vigilance through contact interviewing abroad in protecting the homeland.
As I say, people get – people get pushed out. They get denied as a routine denial because we don’t know their full story, and they don’t come to the United States, and we may not have the record that would show that, in fact, they had nefarious plans. And so that’s why they’re sort of lost in the process, but it was an effective part of the vigilance.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Rob, did you experience that kind of thing?
MR. LAW: Yeah. So the example that comes to mind for me was the New York City subway bombing that happened during the Trump administration, and we certainly went back. We figured out who he was once law enforcement identified him, all right, pulled his A-file – or alien file – which has his entire immigration history. And then you figure out, OK, how did he get that? Were there family members? Are there other possible concerns? And you start trying to piece the puzzle together on that. So there was definitely a very quick and rapid and dedicated response to trying to understand that situation, how that particular alien had made it into the country.
But that’s already too late, right, something that’s happened. Which is why we tried to put in place a number of polices that post-approval there would be checking, whether that’s ensuring that a foreign worker is actually at the worksite that he is supposed to be at. That’s why we tried to change the treatment of student visas to require that they were checking in more frequently with the government to ensure that they still are actually students and maybe, say, for example, they change their major from what they declared. You know, a lot of English studies majors when they’re first coming here, and then they suddenly switch to biomedical engineering or something. That would be the type of information that you would hope that the government would have more timely access to.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. And the – Todd, you referred to the National Vetting Center. The report that you wrote that kind of explains the database, what’s behind it, you actually have a whole section on this National Vetting Center. It seems to me there would be an advantage, whether it would be placed there or somewhere else, to sort of, I don’t know, red team our visa – our vetting system so that – the same way that, like, inspector generals, periodically they try to get knives and guns through TSA – and frankly, they almost always succeed. It seems to me that there’s a role – I don’t know whether the National Vetting Center would be the place to do that – for people, good guys on our side, to try to penetrate our systems, and not in super-secret, you know, Chinese Communist Party intelligence agency sort of resources but kind of the way a regular bad guy would try to fool our systems and see how robust they are.
MR. BENSMAN: Right. Well, I don’t think that there’s been a single media report about the National Vetting Center since the Trump administration. This thing is operating in almost complete darkness.
MR. KRIKORIAN: That’s not a bad thing, necessarily.
MR. BENSMAN: It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. However, you know, we don’t really know what’s going on there. So as far as red teaming, you know, maybe they’re doing that. I don’t know.
But you know, we do have some sources that are familiar with what’s happening there at the National Vetting Center. They are expanding operations. They did take into the fold the Afghan immigrants that – or, I don’t know what you want to call them. They’re –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Evacuees.
MR. LINDERMAN: Parolees.
MR. BENSMAN: Evacuees, parolees. (Laughs.) And we know how that turned out because garbage in, garbage out, right? We don’t really – all they have are – they have databases, classified databases, of our own agencies that previously might have been stovepiped a little bit, now are less stovepiped and can be bounced against there. And we also know that they are using the National Vetting Center for all visas at the – at the present time, which is a good thing, and that they are using the National Vetting Center for border – some of the border – the more recent program where they are doing CBP One humanitarian paroles en masse for four or five different nationalities. They’re running the checks on that. But again, they’re running checks on people from Cuba. I don’t know how much, you know, derogatory intelligence we’re going to get from the Cubans on a share.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So you mean you can’t just call the – (laughter) – Havana DMV and they’ll tell you the record of these people?
MR. BENSMAN: I think they’re still working on interoperability with Cuba.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. BENSMAN: And Nicaragua is another one of the nationalities. Again, I don’t think we’re working closely with the Sandinistas. And the Maduro government in Venezuela, not friendly there. So I’m not sure how good the vetting is going to be for the CBP One program.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And we did have a question on CBP One. And you sort of touched on some of this, that the vetting of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans would be limited simply by the fact that those governments aren’t friendly. But the fourth nationality in the president’s illegal parole plan is Haitians, and that points to something that I think applies probably to Somalia and other countries, is that there is no government. You know, who would – even if somebody there were willing to cooperate with us in providing us access to their databases, what databases? So isn’t that really – especially, I guess, maybe for the State Department, but really generally – a real limitation on our ability to vet people if there’s just no way to even access, there’s no information to vet against?
MR. LINDERMAN: Absolutely. The Mayorkas plan to give parole to these four nationalities is sort of a hybrid of what would be the Visa Waiver Program, and that would require usually a partnership that DHS manages with foreign country partners that have, as you just alluded to, the capacity to provide high-level information, sharing their own databases on terrorists, criminals, and others in a way that we can operationalize that to clear those names through the ESTA process so that when a Brit or a Frenchman or a South Korean gets on an airplane without a visa, travels to the United States, that person has been vetted not only through our own databases – which are considerable, but they often don’t hold information on foreign nationals that we don’t know about – but that government has provided that information to us so we are screening/pinging across all those databases. In the Mayorkas plan, as you just alluded to, there are no cooperative agreements with these countries, and in some cases they don’t have the capacity to provide that information before the CBP One plan lets these people arrive at a port of entry in the United States.
It is standing on its – on its head the standards of VWP. When we deal with other countries like Croatia through a long, complicated process so their nationals can travel visa-free to the United States after years of sharing information and working out procedures, and then to snap your fingers overnight and create that possibility for Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Haitians, and Cubans, this turns VWP on its head. It’s something that Congress should look at very closely.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So I mean, basically, yeah, so the Visa Waiver Program works when the country we enter into the agreement with is one that is capable and willing to basically do the vetting with us. If you got a country who’s either incapable, utterly, or unwilling, I mean, you’re right; it is – CBP One is kind of like Visa Waiver, but Visa Waiver without the other half, the partnership part of it. It’s appalling.
So one of the questions sort of – I mean, I’m kind of generalizing the question, but is – and, Rob, you referred to some of the things that the Trump administration had done at USCIS. You know, foreign students had to check in more often or what have you. Are there other things either Consular Affairs or State – or if you have any suggestions, Todd – could do that would improve vetting? I mean, what hasn’t been done or hasn’t really, you know, been conceived of yet? Any suggestions?
MR. LAW: Well, I’d say one of the things is whenever possible there’s great value in in-person adjudication. Now, it’s not going to be practical for every immigration benefit that USCIS is responsible for, but there’s so much that a human adjudicator can pick up on that – you know, somebody’s acting a little shifty or a little nervous, or something that should be off the top of their head they stumble over, that, you know, you’re not going to recognize that when you’re just looking at a piece of paper, which is, you know, what happens with, you know, USCIS’s antiquated system. There’s great value in the in-person stuff.
Now, of course, the criticism for it – and the Trump administration tried to expand in-person adjudication – was it takes longer. Well, you know, as I mentioned earlier, and I think as Phil did as well, you know, it is – I think it’s far better that it takes a little bit longer to get every decision right than to rush through it, and that next person who commits, you know, a heinous act in the United States got through because of that arbitrary pressure.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MR. BENSMAN: And if I can riff off of that, in the final months of the Trump administration they had proposed a new regulation in response to this spate of Chinese espionage student visa/cultural visa cases – where they’re coming in and they’re working for the PLA, hiding their military background and intelligence background – where the number of student applicants was going to be significantly reduced so that that could happen. And also – and there were a lot of measures in that regulation that would have really significantly enhanced the vetting of those Chinese students and cultural exchange scholars, I guess, coming through and stealing our – you know, our best research at the academy. But the Biden administration, one of the very first things that it did was they hit the eject button on that and eliminated it, saying it was racist.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And actually, I thought you brought up a good point about one of the ways it’s easier to find a needle, is to make the haystack smaller, essentially. Now, we’re always going to want tourists to come here. And frankly, most tourists who come are coming from Visa Waiver countries or the equivalent. Canada’s not actually technically, I think, Visa Waiver, right? It’s a different relationship with them.
MR. LINDERMAN: It’s in a special category, yeah. Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, exactly. But for immigration purposes, reducing numbers makes it easier. I mean, it allows a larger share to be interviewed in person and what have you. So numbers are of the essence, as Enoch Powell once said.
I had a question about the database, sort of. But one thing I wanted to focus on is, Todd, what are the I guess not shortcomings of the database, but what are the sort of – what’s the other side? What does the database not do?
MR. BENSMAN: Sure. Well, for one thing, you have to remember that to reverse-engineer these cases you have to have sufficient public data. We don’t have access to the backroom deliberations that happen over at USCIS or out in the camp in Somalia or Kenya or something. We only have what we have. So the database is not representative of the problem – of the totality of the problem. Because there are 36 terrorism cases doesn’t mean that the most – that the majority of these cases are going to be terrorism cases. So that’s one limitation, I guess, of the database.
So the other thing is that, you know, a lot of the analytics that go into the judgments are just that. It’s a judgment call as to whether we, from looking in the rearview mirror, can determine that they actually did have an opportunity to detect this person. I did approach experts at USCIS, people that are currently employed and former State Department people, and I ran a lot of these by. And my judgment seemed to be, you know, reasonable; that, yeah, they could have just interviewed, you know, the brother and they would have – the whole thing would have come unraveled.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So, in other words, you didn’t include cases where there were clear bad guys but they – it would have been unrealistic to expect them to have been caught through vetting.
MR. BENSMAN: That’s right. And for example, on the espionage-type cases, I mean, we can’t expect an adjudicator at USCIS to be able to penetrate an espionage operation. Those guys are trained to be clandestine. That’s their business. However, for example, in the case of one Chinese student who was ultimately apprehended and convicted, you know, that student then went on to apply for an OPT employment opportunity, except that the company that he claimed he was applying to didn’t exist.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So another example of – yeah.
MR. BENSMAN: So somebody could have called the company to see –
MR. KRIKORIAN: But another example of standard immigration enforcement screening out a bad guy like this.
MR. BENSMAN: That’s right. Right.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So let me – I want to respect people’s time. I just want to point out that for people working in the government and secretly listening to this livestream or watching it afterwards, there is a way in the database to submit cases or, you know, to sort of flag cases that Todd might add to it. And also, you could just email us. Check our website, CIS.org.
Any last thoughts from Phil or Rob?
MR. LINDERMAN: So just on the State Department perspective, again, I come back to the value – super value of watchlisting. For the listeners, you have to remember that the U.S. government is holding in different agencies their own security database – biometric information or biographic information. State Department has one, DHS, et cetera, FBI. And an applicant for a visa will ping across all those databases and they’ll be cleared. Whoever holds information – if, in fact, we have information – on one of these suspects will then be able to go at the National Vetting Center and make their case on why this person should not be – should be ineligible for a visa is more or less how the process works.
But, again, watchlisting. So State Department, as we move into the world of facial recognition and other biometric tools, already does collect information on visa suspects, the Visa (Waiver ?) plan. But I would urge to capture the other nefarious actors that are in the database – criminals, human-rights abusers, and so forth – that we, State Department abroad, need to be more aggressive in ingesting those identities. We find them there. We live in the countries. We see the media. We deal with authorities. And if we can be more vigilant on those kind of cases, we’ll add an extra layer of security so we won’t wake up and discover some massive human-right(s) abuser’s been living for 10 years in California.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
Rob, any last thought?
MR. LAW: Yeah. I would just add that the output is only going to be as reliable or as valuable as the – as the input. And when we talk about the vetting database systems, particularly those from failed states or other uncooperative countries, the lack of derogatory information does not mean that it’s not there/it doesn’t exist just because it’s not in those particular systems.
And to that point, when it comes to the USCIS-specific, immigration benefit eligibility is established by the forms – the, you know, laundry list of forms that people utilize for their immigration benefits. As I wrote about a couple years ago, the Biden administration took about to remove all questions about gang affiliation because apparently allowing MS-13 to get green cards is a top immigration priority of this administration. It’s my understanding that they are continuously and methodically removing questions from various forms which will prevent future additions, I would say, to your database, because when you are asking about three or four generic questions there won’t be anything in that file to ever compare against. They’re just not asking relevant questions any longer.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So as they say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I guess.
So thank you, Todd and Phil and Rob. The database, again, is at our website, CIS.org. We encourage people to explore it. And like I said, if you have reason to believe there are other cases we should add to it, this is a living database. It’s something we’re going to add to and update as time goes on, just like our sanctuary city map. We have a map of sanctuary jurisdictions across the country. It also is a living document, as it were; we add to as developments happen.
That is it for this panel on the vetting failures database for the Center for Immigration Studies. Thank you for tuning in. Thank all of – I thank all of you for participating. And hopefully, you will come in for and tune in for our next event.