Congress struggles to respond to new terror attacks

Congress struggles to respond to new terror attacks
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Congress is scrambling to find a response to a series of recent terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad, that sent shivers through the country and raised questions about the efficacy of the international fight against Islamic State extremists.

Bipartisan leaders, facing intense pressure to act following the deadly November attacks in Paris, came together within weeks to enact new visa waiver rules that bolstered screenings for certain travelers to the United States.

The rare show of bipartisanship allowed lawmakers to return home for the winter holidays claiming a victory in the seemingly eternal effort to plug holes in the nation's anti-terror defenses.

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But the same urgency has not accompanied more recent terrorist strikes, particularly December's shooting massacre in San Bernardino, which marked the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. That tragedy, which killed 14, prompted concerns about an entirely different set of issues –– notably fiancée visas –– and brought vows from lawmakers to tackle the problem head on.

Four months later, however, despite numerous hearings and briefings, no such legislation has reached President Obama's desk.

One of the shooters in the San Bernardino episode had entered the United States on a fiancée visa, and Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, vowed in December that he'd "soon" introduce legislation addressing visa screenings –– a message reiterated by his office last month. But no bill has yet emerged, let alone passed. Judiciary Republicans are instead now fighting to put new restrictions on Obama's Syrian refugee program –– a partisan bill that has no chance of winning the president's signature.

The reasons for the slower response –– after San Bernardino versus Paris–– are both practical and political, according to security experts and sources on Capitol Hill.

For one thing, Congress's response to the Paris attacks was approved after the Dec. 2 shootings in California. That timeline helped create the public perception that lawmakers were responding to both attacks in one swoop, despite the fact that the visa waiver bill addressed issues starkly different from the visa concerns at the heart of the San Bernardino case.

Matt Mayer, a national security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Congress has a tendency to adopt a "one-action-covers-the-bases" strategy, even if subsequent events might raise new questions and expose new vulnerabilities.

"Congress's mentality is: We acted," Mayer said.

Another factor also relates to timing: The San Bernardino shooting came roughly two weeks before Congress's long winter break. By the time the lawmakers returned to Washington, the 2016 presidential year had officially begun, the San Bernardino shooting was generating fewer headlines and the public pressure on Congress to rush a response to the White House had diminished.

Additionally, the Paris response –– which eliminated visa-waiver privileges for any foreigners who have visited Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan over the past five years –– had long been on the radar of Capitol Hill lawmakers. Indeed, the proposal that passed was largely based on legislation introduced by Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) in January of 2015, more than 10 months before the attacks.

"When you have the one-off case of a fiancée visa," Mayer said, "it makes it seem like such a niche issue."

Furthermore, leaders on the House Homeland Security Committee had spent much of 2015 traveling through Europe and the Middle East as part of a task force investigating ways to stem the flow of foreigners who leave home to join terrorist cells –– an issue relating directly to the Paris attacks and, more recently, the deadly suicide bombings in Brussels. Behind Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the group released its recommendations in late September and was already drafting legislation based on its findings when the Paris attacks occurred.

Perhaps most significantly, the issues underlying the San Bernardino case are simply more complicated, experts say, than the reforms adopted post-Paris.

"There was no public social media profile of the wife here to collect or monitor," said a House aide familiar with the debate, referring to the shooter who immigrated on the fiancée visa, "so there is no straightforward or easy fix."

The aide is expecting more hearings and briefings related to the San Bernardino tragedy after House lawmakers return from their long spring recess in mid-April.

Meanwhile, GOP leaders are quick to highlight the list of anti-terror bills they've passed through committees and, in some cases, on the House floor. Of more than 50 reforms recommended by McCaul's task force, for instance, 15 have been incorporated into bills that are moving through the lower chamber, his office notes.

Susan Phalen, spokesperson for the Homeland Security Committee, said the panel "is moving forward aggressively."

"The Committee’s bipartisan Task Force report on terrorists and foreign fighters, released in September 2015, contained over 50 recommendations to enhance US security against terror threats," Phalen said in an email. "The Committee, in partnership with others, moved quickly on those recommendations. The Committee is also working on legislation to address visa security vulnerabilities, which we expect to release soon."

McCaul is also working with Democratic Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert Warner2020 Democrats raise alarm about China's intellectual property theft State probes of Google, Facebook to test century-old antitrust laws Hillicon Valley: Trump fires Bolton as national security adviser | DOJ indicts hundreds over wire-transfer scam | CEOs push for federal privacy law | Lyft unveils new safety features after sexual assault allegations MORE (Va.) to create a bipartisan panel designed to grapple with anti-terror strategies in the digital age. Dubbed the National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges, the group would be charged with studying ways to help law enforcers fight crime and terrorism without encroaching on privacy protections.

The complex "encryption" dilemma was front-and-center in the San Bernardino case, as the FBI and Apple waged a very public battle over how to retrieve data from the iPhone of one of the shooters –– a fight that raised broader questions about the responsibility of private companies to help the government protect the country.

Mayer said it's "frankly stunning" that Congress hasn't passed the bill yet, and warned that a failure to do so would confront lawmakers with "the very real political problem of not having acted in the face of the slow drip" of global terrorist attacks.

Still, he predicted that creating the commission has a better chance of passing the polarized Congress this election year than most other anti-terror bills.

"That," Mayer said, "is the lowest hanging fruit."