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Share information, don’t add more bureaucracy with National Vetting Center  

Share information, don’t add more bureaucracy with National Vetting Center  
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The White House has announced the establishment of a National Vetting Center to rectify what it calls the “ad hoc” process for vetting travelers. The center, within the Department of Homeland Security, will coordinate the vetting of persons entering the country for security and public safety risks.

This center is likely an attempt to fulfill President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE’s campaign promise of “extreme vetting” of people coming to the United States. Although not entirely clear, the center appears to be focused on identifying terrorist threats.

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This is a wasted opportunity. The government already has comprehensive multi-agency processes to vet for potential terrorist threats. Rather than replicating existing terrorist screening capabilities, it should focus on an actual security gap: consolidating and disseminating information on individuals associated with transnational crime.

 

The U.S. vetting process to identify possible terrorist connections among travelers and migrants is extremely thorough. This process is overseen by the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the White House. The National Counterterrorism Center, which is part of the intelligence community, provides a coordinating element for analysis and dissemination of terrorist-related intelligence through the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment.

This information is further developed and disseminated for non-intelligence community use by the FBI through its Terrorist Screening Center and the Terrorist Screening Database and related watchlists.

This information is then operationalized across the traveler-screening enterprise. Customs and Border Protection checks every U.S.-bound traveler against lookouts generated through the database. The State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System and Homeland Security’s Interagency Border Inspection System use this information to identify any threats posed by visa applicants or people applying for immigration benefits. The Transportation Security Administration incorporates it into the “No-Fly List” to make sure no dangerous people get on planes, and the FBI uses the National Crime Information Center to share appropriate information with state and local law enforcement.

It is unclear what the proposed National Vetting Center will do to improve the counterterrorism vetting process. It will, however, add another layer of bureaucracy — with the attendant fights over turf and budgets — and increase the amount of time institutions spend “coordinating.” Further, it will divert resources, personnel and attention from existing and well-functioning capabilities.

There is an urgent need for better information-sharing about criminal organizations and those who are affiliated with and support such groups. We have learned important lessons developing the modern counterterrorism information-sharing enterprise, but those lessons have not been applied to transnational organized crime.

First, it is long past time for law enforcement to embrace a “need to share” standard for information on criminals. Too much valuable information remains locked in investigative files, information that could be leveraged by Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to target and disrupt international criminal enterprises.

Second, to facilitate information-sharing and address agency conflicts (so-called “deconfliction”), it is necessary to establish a clearinghouse of information about transnational organized crime that brings in and analyzes information from across government. We need, in other words, a transnational crime-screening center.

Third, we need a systemic way to disseminate transnational organized crime information. Watchlists work, and there needs to be a robust watchlist of members of transnational organized crime organizations and their supporters.

These steps would help bring the government’s efforts to counter organized crime into the 21st century. The current, traditional approach to criminal groups — with its focus on building big cases for prosecution — is ill-suited for modern threats.

Modern criminal organizations are highly adaptable and often physically beyond U.S. jurisdiction, and building a case for prosecution can be a lengthy, if not years-long, process. Even where a kingpin can be had, the groups can reconstitute, if they suffer any operational disruption at all.

This is dramatically demonstrated with the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. Its leader, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, twice was arrested and jailed in Mexico, and he currently resides in a U.S. jail awaiting trial. Yet, for all the time and effort to capture El Chapo, and all the time he has spent behind bars, the Sinaloa cartel remains one of the primary Mexican cartels.

Vastly enhanced information-sharing is a sound first step to reorienting our approach to transnational crime, and President Trump’s push for a vetting center could provide the mechanism to ramp up the effort. It would be a shame to lose that opportunity to an unnecessary reshuffling of the counterterrorism-screening org chart.

Nate Bruggeman, a partner at the consulting firm BorderWorks Advisors, LLC, held senior policy positions with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration.

Ben Rohrbaugh, a partner at BorderWorks Advisors, LLC, held senior policy positions with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, and was a director on the White House’s National Security Staff where he developed policy on North American and border security issues for the Obama administration.