Is arrest of Saudi student a 'see something' win, or security flaw?

Lawmakers are at odds over whether the arrest of a Saudi man on bomb charges is a victory for U.S. homeland security and intelligence officials or a spotlight on the country’s vulnerabilities and a call to heighten security and immigration measures.

The FBI arrested Saudi national Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari last week for allegedly trying to purchase chemicals to make a bomb and planning out possible attack scenarios, including one to plant explosives in toy dolls and another to smuggle a bomb into a nightclub inside a backpack.

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The case of Aldawsari, who was in the U.S. on a student visa and enrolled at a community college in Texas, has ignited a debate among House lawmakers over whether further steps need to be taken to screen or monitor people in the U.S. on visas.

House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants to increase surveillance and screening measures on individuals in the U.S. on visas from countries known for terrorist activities, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

“I think we have to realize that if they come here from these countries, they’re going to be subjected to more surveillance than others,” King said Friday on Fox News. “If they fit a certain profile, if you’re coming from Saudi Arabia and you want to major in chemistry... I think you should be able to monitor the Internet and be able to see what these people are doing.” 

Next Thursday, at the committee's hearing to discuss the DHS budget, King said he plans to question Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about Aldawsari and suggest an increase in screening and monitoring on foreign students in the country.

"I want to know what she thinks can be done to improve our security going forward," said King in a statement on Saturday. "In this case, you have a student from Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, on a student visa studying chemistry, with an interest in explosives. I believe we need to better screen student visa applicants, certainly those from countries like Saudi Arabia. 

"Then once they are here studying," he said, "we need to have a way to more closely monitor them.”

The ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (Md.) heralded the Aldawsari case as a success but told The Hill that lawmakers and U.S. officials need to be careful to weigh security concerns while not deterring foreign students who come to the country and add to its economic and educational development.

“We don’t want to discourage people coming from other countries to come to our education systems, because that makes us stronger as a country,” said Ruppersberger in an interview.  “[Foreign students] are going to other countries, like China and Russia, who I believe are a big threat to us from a military and power point of view. We can’t discourage students from other countries coming to our country.”

Ruppersberger suggested that the U.S. focus on intelligence gathering and sharing, isolating trends in recruitment tactics by terrorist groups and radicalized segments of communities, both physical and online. He credited the public for alerting authorities to Aldawsari’s alleged suspicious activities and pointed to the success of certain provisions in the Patriot Act in allowing officials to respond quickly.

The chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), also used Aldawsari’s arrest to push for an extension of the Patriot Act’s “lone wolf” provision, which loosens the rules around when law enforcement officials can monitor individuals they suspect of terrorist activities.  

“From what we’ve heard so far it looks like this was a nice piece of work by the FBI and some alert citizens in preventing a potential terrorist attack,” said Rogers in a statement. “This case also highlights the need for continued vigilance against  ‘lone wolf’ terrorist threats, as well as the need for Congress to make the ‘Lone Wolf’ provision of FISA permanent so the FBI has this crucial tool at its disposal for use against precisely this type of threat.”

Congress recently passed a 90-day extension of three provisions in the Patriot Act amid much argument over civil liberty and security concerns. The provisions include greater access to roving wiretaps and business records, in addition to the “lone wolf” provision.

Ruppersberger said concerns over violating civil liberties are necessary to ensure that a proper system of checks and balances is maintained. He said, however, that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) was created for that reason.

“The most important thing for me in the Patriot Act is that you have judicial supervision,” he said. “Our country is based on checks and balances. But you need to also give those people whose job it is to protect us the resources to do their job pursuant to the Constitution.”

But King said that those civil liberty concerns go out the window when authorities are dealing with foreign nationals in the U.S. on visas.

“If they feel that that’s so much of an infringement on their freedoms or liberties, well, no one’s making them come here in the first place,” said King. “We’re not talking about American citizens. We’re talking about people who are coming here at the sufferance of the United States.”

“I realize there’s a lot of civil liberty concerns," he said. "I quite frankly don’t share them in these cases when you’re talking about someone who is not a citizen [and] who is here because we’ve allowed them into the country [and] we’re giving them a special privilege to be here. There should be monitoring. There should be surveillance.”

The lawmakers and the FBI credit the arrest to several calls made by private citizens who were concerned about Aldawsari’s alleged actions. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been heavily pushing a new national security campaign called, “If you see something, say something,” which asks citizens to alert authorities to suspicious behavior.

Earlier this month Aldawsari allegedly tried to buy a shipment of the chemical phenol, or carbolic acid, which can be used to make explosives, according to the FBI. But both the chemical supplier and the freight shipper contacted law enforcement officials, saying that they thought the order was suspicious.

Aldawsari allegedly canceled the order, but had previously been successful in acquiring two other chemicals that could be used to create an improvised explosive device, said the FBI.

The FBI said surveillance of Aldawsari revealed that he allegedly e-mailed himself chemical recipes, plus instructions on how to convert a cellular phone into a remote detonator and how to prepare a booby-trapped vehicle using common household items. He also allegedly purchased a gas mask, a Hazmat suit, a soldering iron kit, glass beakers and flasks, wiring, a stun gun, clocks and a battery tester.

The FBI says that it found many of these items when they searched his house, as well as a journal that allegedly indicates his long-held desire to carry out a terrorist plot.

According to the FBI, one journal entry reads, “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”

Aldawsari faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and filed a not-guilty plea in court on Friday.