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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cruz Misquotes Clapper on Refugees

Ted Cruz misrepresented the words of the U.S. national intelligence director, claiming that James Clapper “said among those [Syrian] refugees are no doubt a significant number of ISIS terrorists.” Clapper didn’t say that.

Instead, Clapper said it was a “huge concern” that ISIS could try to infiltrate the refugees. Clapper also expressed confidence in the United States’ ability to screen refugee applicants.

During a campaign stop in Michigan on Oct. 5, Cruz said President Obama’s plan to accept more than 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria was “nothing short of crazy” due to the possibility that ISIS could embed operatives among the refugees, who could then unleash terrorist activities within the United States. Cruz isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate who has expressed such a concern. Donald Trump said of Syrian refugees: “No documentation, we have no idea where they come from, we have no idea who they are … It could be the all-time great Trojan Horse.”

But Cruz went one step further, and claimed Clapper had concluded there were a “significant number of ISIS terrorists” among the refugees headed to the U.S.

“There is a reason the director of national intelligence said among those refugees are no doubt a significant number of ISIS terrorists,” Cruz said. “It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people including jihadists that are coming here to murder innocent Americans.”

But that’s not what Clapper said.

Speaking at the second annual Intelligence and National Security Summit on Sept. 9, Clapper said such a possibility was a “huge concern,” but he added that the U.S. has a “pretty aggressive” screening program. He said he was particularly concerned about refugees being taken in by European countries that might not have such tight screening.

Here are his full comments on the Syrian refugee crisis, and the security concerns surrounding it (starting at the 56:55 mark).

Clapper, Sept. 9: It is getting to be, in its totality, a disaster of biblical proportions. Just look at Syria alone, where there are in excess of 4 million people that have left Syria and another 11 million that have been internally displaced. And, of course, the humanitarian situation internal to Syria is a disaster. And so what this has caused, obviously, is this urge to go somewhere, anywhere where there is some hope of their life improving.

And, of course, as they descend on Europe, one of the obvious issues that we worry about, and in turn as we bring refugees to this country, is exactly what is their background.

I don’t, obviously, put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees. So that is a huge concern of ours. We do have a pretty aggressive program for those coming to this country, for screening their backgrounds. I’m not as uniformly confident about each European country that is going to be faced with welcoming or allowing refugees into their countries. So this is a huge issue for all kinds of reasons. The security implications are just one small part of it. The economic, the social impacts, are huge.

So Clapper said it was a “huge concern of ours” that ISIL (or ISIS) might try to “infiltrate operatives among these refugees.” But he never stated definitively that there are a “significant number” of terrorists embedded among those refugees headed to the U.S. In fact, he went on to say that the U.S. has “a pretty aggressive program” to screen refugees, and that he was “not as uniformly confident” about the screening programs employed by European countries accepting Syrian refugees. That suggests he has confidence in the U.S. screening program.

The U.S. Screening Process

On Sept. 11, a State Department official, speaking on background, went through a lengthy explanation of the mechanics of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. It is hardly a matter of simply waving through the first 10,000 people who come forward.

The Syrians being considered for refugee status are referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. According to the State Department official, UNHCR prioritizes “the most vulnerable” for referral. This includes “female-headed households. It could include victims of torture or violence. It could include religious minorities. It could include LGBT refugees, people who need medical care that they can’t get in their country of origin. So basically, people who are not thriving or expected to thrive in their country of origin.”

Caseworkers collect biographic and other information from refugees while they are living in resettlement support centers overseas. Refugees are then interviewed in person at the resettlement center by Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Citizenship and Immigration officers, primarily to determine whether the applicants meet the definition of a refugee based on one of five protected grounds: “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

The applicants are then subjected to security checks involving screening by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The State Department official did not go into detail on those security checks, noting that “[m]ost of the details of the security checks are classified.”

Applicants also go through health screenings and a three-day “cultural orientation” program. In all, the State Department official said, the vetting process takes “anywhere from 18 to 24 months or even longer to process a case from referral or application to arrival in the United States.”

In a press briefing on Sept. 10, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “I can tell you that refugees go through the most robust security process of anybody who’s contemplating travel to the United States. Refugees have to be screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, by the FBI Terrorist Screening Center. They go through databases that are maintained by DHS, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. There is biographical and biometric information that is collected about these individuals. They have to submit to in-person interviews to discuss their case.”

The screening process “typically takes 12 to 18 months,” Earnest said. “And the reason for that process is that the safety and security of the U.S. homeland comes first.”

How Secure Is It?

However, in a Senate subcommittee hearing on the refugee resettlement program on Oct. 1, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions raised concerns about the ability of federal officials to properly vet Syrian refugees, to ensure they are not linked with terrorists. Sessions cited, for example, media reports about the accessibility of forged Syrian passports.

Barbara Strack, chief of the refugee affairs division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, responded, “We think documents are informative. We look at them. But no single document is taken as a gold ticket for refugee approval.”

“And what if they don’t have any documents?” Sessions asked. “A lot of people don’t have any documents. What do you refer to then?”

Said Strack: “In general, again, as I mentioned, we’ve found with Syrian refugees … in general they have many, many documents. … We involve the law enforcement community, intelligence community. We invite them in to train our refugee officers and to talk to them about country conditions information.

“So if someone doesn’t have documents, for example, they might tell us, ‘My documents were destroyed when a barrel bomb fell on my house.’ We’ll ask when and where that happened, and then we can check with intelligence community, or often even open-source information, to find out if that’s realistic. Was that happening at that place at that time? So we have a multifaceted approach to this.”

Matthew Emrich, associate director of the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at the Citizenship and Immigration Services, added that he would be “happy to describe this to you in a different setting” — meaning that he could only discuss some classified details of the screening protocol in a private meeting.

Sessions then referred to testimony by Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division at the FBI before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Feb. 11, in which Steinbach was asked about the problem of vetting Syrian refugees.

“The concern in Syria is that we don’t have systems in places on the ground to collect the information to vet,” Steinbach said. “That would be the concern is we would be vetting databases that don’t hold information on those individuals, and that is the concern” (starting at about the 1:14:00 mark).

It’s fair for Sessions, or any other member of Congress, to ask questions about the federal government’s ability to screen Syrian refugees to ensure they do not have ties to ISIS. And in his remarks on Sept. 9, Clapper concurred that it is a “huge concern.” But Clapper never said — as Cruz claimed — that he had “no doubt a significant number of ISIS terrorists” were among those refugees headed for the U.S.

— Robert Farley, with Rebecca Heilweil