Homeland Security's Kelly Defends Trump Travel Ban

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly testifies during the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on his confirmation to be Secretary of Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff
Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly testifies during the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on his confirmation to be Secretary of Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff

New Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired Marine general, defended President Donald Trump's travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries and said Tuesday that confusion at airports was caused mainly by protesters.

At a news conference with top aides, Kelly pushed back against charges that Homeland and other government agencies were blindsided by Trump's executive order last Friday imposing a 90-day ban on travelers to the U.S. from Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

The order also put a 120-day ban on admitting refugees from across the globe and placed an indefinite halt on Syrian refugees coming to the United States.

"We did know the [Executive Order] was coming," said Kelly, an Iraq veteran whose last post was as head of U.S. Southern Command.

"We had people involved in the general drafting of it. We knew all that was coming," he said, and "it wasn't a surprise it was coming."

Kelly also argued against calling Trump's action a "travel ban."

"This is not a travel ban; this is a temporary pause," he said, and "This is not, I repeat, not a ban on Muslims."

Kelly said the confusion and delays at airports across the country Friday night were mainly the result of protests at immigration checkpoints. "Our officers -- who are at the counter, so to speak -- the only chaos they saw was what was taking place in other parts of the airport."

He was joined at the news conference by Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection at Homeland.

McAleenan said that more than one million travelers came to the U.S. by air in the first 72 hours of the order being in place. Of that number, about 500,000 were foreign nationals. He said 721 of the 500,000 foreign nationals were not allowed to board flights because of the order, and 1,060 lawful permanent residents and 75 visa holders who did arrive were granted waivers. He also said 872 refugees will be arriving this week after waivers are processed for them.

However, in contrast to Kelly, McAleenan said it is "fair to acknowledge" that communications about the executive order "haven't been the best in the initial rollout of this process."

Implementation of the order became more complicated as several federal judges issued stays on its execution and acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday night announced that, in her opinion, the executive order was unlawful. Yates said she would not order U.S. Attorneys to defend it in court.

Trump immediately fired Yates and replaced her with Dana J. Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who pledged to defend the executive order.

Questions about Terror Threat

The controversial travel ban on people from the seven majority-Muslim countries has raised questions about the magnitude of the terror threat they pose to the U.S. and prompted the Defense Department to seek exemptions for those who helped the U.S. military in Iraq. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the DoD had yet to begin submitting requests for exemptions.

The executive order signed by Trump at the Pentagon last Friday with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at his side was titled "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States."

The first sentence of the order said it was intended "to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States."

Without citing a figure, the order went on to say, "Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program."

In remarks after the signing, Trump said the order was designed to "keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here."

However, two recent think tank reports have concluded that the terror risk posed by travelers from the seven countries, and from Muslim-Americans in general, has been exaggerated.

A report last week by the Cato Institute said, "The countries that Trump chose to temporarily ban are not serious terrorism risks."

The author of the report, Alex Nowrasteh, said he had compiled a list of foreign-born people who committed or were convicted of attempting to commit a terrorist attack on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2015.

He said that, during the time period he analyzed, a total of 17 people from the countries singled out by Trump "were convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and they killed zero people."

In another report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, sociologist Charles Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said that 46 Muslim-Americans were associated with violent extremism in 2016, a 40 percent drop from 2015.

"Few of these individuals (9 of 46, or 20 percent) had family backgrounds from the seven countries reportedly designated by the Trump administration for temporary immigration bans," the report said.

In a statement accompanying the report, David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center, said, "The data in this report contradicts two common narratives in our polarized discourse about terrorism. First, it is flatly untrue that America is deeply threatened by violent extremism by Muslim-Americans; attacks by Muslims accounted for only one-third of one percent of all murders in America last year."

"Second, it is also untrue that violent extremism can be ignored as a problem within the Muslim-American community. Collaborative efforts between government agencies and Muslim-Americans to address this problem are justified and needed," Schanzer said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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