FBI chief: 'Gaps' remain in screening Syrian refugees

FBI chief: 'Gaps' remain in screening Syrian refugees
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Federal officials say “gaps” remain in their ability to screen Syrian refugees headed into the country, even as their ability to check incoming migrants has improved.

During a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Thursday, FBI Director James Comey sounded a cautious note that is likely to be picked up by critics of the White House’s plan to welcome more refugees into the U.S.

“My concern there is there are certain gaps ... in the data available to us,” Comey said.

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“There is risk associated of bringing anybody in from the outside, but specifically from a conflict zone like that,” he added.

“There is no such thing as a no-risk enterprise and there are deficits that we face.”

In particular, the lack of solid on-the-ground intelligence assets in Syria has clouded the U.S.’s ability to crosscheck the backgrounds of every refugee hoping to come to the U.S., Comey and other national security officials told the Senate panel.

“The intelligence that we have of this particular conflict zone is not as rich as we would like it to be,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. “We’ve got a much more streamlined and effective system to make sure that all of our intelligence holdings are brought to bear as these decisions are made, but you can only review against what you have.”

“We are building that fact into our analysis as well,” he added, “so that we can at least identify what more questions we need to ask.”

Multiple Republicans have been critical of the Obama administration’s plan to allow 85,000 refugees into the U.S. next year, and 100,000 in 2017. That’s an increase from the current cap of 70,000 refugees per year. 

Many of those new slots will be filled by refugees from the four-year civil war in Syria, which has left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions to leave their homes. 

So far, only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have come to the U.S., out of a total of roughly 4 million who have fled the country and overwhelmed borders in Europe and the Middle East.  

Among other concerns, many GOP lawmakers have worried that the influx of new migrants could allow extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or other radical organizations to slip undetected into the U.S.

“I’m very skeptical about what I hear,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said during Thursday’s hearing.

Obama administration officials have insisted that the vetting will be thorough, despite concerns about the lack of intelligence.

Any refugees headed to American shores would first be recommended by the United Nations, the Obama administration has said, and then meticulously screened by various U.S. agencies.

“We should do the right thing by accepting more, but we should be careful in doing it,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.