Lawmakers Demand Greater Scrutiny of Syrian Refugees

Lawmakers intent on ensuring that ISIS fighters or those sympathetic to them don't slip into the U.S. disguised as refugees escaping the Syrian bloodshed are demanding President Barack Obama beef up the vetting process.

But Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, specifically dismissed the notion of "a religious test" for refugees.

"I don't think that makes much sense," Thornberry said during a roundtable discussion with reporters on Tuesday.  But Thornberry did say that that a pause in the admittance of Syrian refugees might be advisable until tighter vetting procedures were put in place.

Meanwhile a dozen lawmakers, 11 of them Republican, sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday demanding that "no refugee related to the Syrian crisis is admitted to the United States unless the U.S. government can guarantee, with 100 percent assurance, that they are not members, supporters, or sympathizers of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Daesh or ISIL."

Signing onto the letter were GOP Senators Johnny Isakson of Georgia; Mark Kirk of Illinois; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; Joni Ernst of Iowa; Daniel Coats of Indiana; Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia; Chuck Grassley, of Iowa; Richard Shelby of Alabama; Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi; Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mike Rounds of South Dakota.

The only Democrat was Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The recent terrorist attack in Paris, where some 129 people were killed and more than 300 wounded or injured at several locations, has spurred a great deal of fear and suspicion of refugees fleeing Syria since at least one of the killers reportedly got into Europe by posing as a refugee.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack and pledged to attack London and Washington, DC.

A number of state governors have said they will refuse to allow Syrian refugees into their states, though experts say the states may not dictate where refugees live once they have been admitted by the U.S.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- both trying to become their party's nominee for President -- have suggested that only Syrian refugees who are Christian be admitted.

Obama has said the U.S. would take in 10,000 Syrian refugees next year and has not backed off on that even with the Paris attacks and the push-back from some in Congress and the states.

Amy Pope, deputy homeland security advisor and deputy assistant to Obama on the National Security Council, wrote on a White House blog Tuesday that the refugees "that have captivated so much attention in the wake of Friday's attack [in Paris] are fleeing precisely the type of senseless slaughter that occurred in Paris.

"To slam the door in their faces -- to decide not to help when we know that we can help -- would be a betrayal of our values. It would be un-American," she wrote.

The Senators, in their letter to Obama, noted that while the U.S. has "a long history of welcoming refugees … our first and most important priority must be to ensure that any refugee who comes to the United States does not present a threat to the American people."

The administration, likely anticipating the congressional calls to slow the admission of refugees from Syria, scheduled a phone-in roundtable between reporters and senior State Department officials Tuesday morning to say the process for vetting and admitting refugees already is robust.

The officials, speaking on background, said additional forms of security screening have already been implemented and even more will be added.

Details on the new screening processes are classified, the officials said, but are briefed to lawmakers with oversight authority and relevant agencies.

Biographical information gleaned from interviewing refugee applicants, records of past travel and any criminal activity are all part of the process. The Consular Looking System for vetting biographies is coordinated by the FBI, the officials said, and in cases such as Syria some applicants go through even more stringent checks.

Biometrics are part of the process and drawn from records of the FBI, State Department and Defense Department, they said.

"But with Syria there are enhanced reviews," one of the three said. "All are reviewed at headquarters by refugee specialists ahead of [any interview]."

Depending on what is in the file built on FBI, State and DoD information, the folder could be sent to a fraud unit and examined even more closely. Information is then prepared and sent to the adjudicator handling the refugee's application.

"So if someone says 'I was in a demonstration in Aleppo, and police came,' we can look back and see if that's consistent with what we know about the country's conditions at that time and place," an official said.

Every refugee applicant is interviewed in person by an individual who has been trained in how to elicit testimony and weigh credibility. And with respect to Syrian refugee applicants, interviewers receive special training, including from law enforcement personnel, they said.

In response to a question the officials said that about 50 percent of refugees are approved for entry after going through the process. But of the other 50 percent, not all are ultimately denied. Many of those are put in pending status, and eventually will be resolved in favor of admission, the officials said.

Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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