Speaking at a military base in Tampa on Tuesday, President Barack Obama touted his legacy as commander-in-chief, making the case that “no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland” during his eight years in office.
On Wednesday, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee countered Obama’s state of the terrorism threat, describing how Congress will aim to work with the administration of President-elect Donald Trump to “make America safe again.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, delivered his second “State of Homeland Security” address at The Heritage Foundation, outlining a rush of counterterrorism policies marked by a stricter U.S. approach to determining who is allowed into the country.
McCaul, like Trump has, proposed that the U.S. “immediately suspend immigration from high-risk countries where we cannot confidently weed out terror suspects.”
He said he agrees with Trump on most issues, promising the Republican-led Congress will work with the next president to impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees, building a border wall with Mexico, and deporting criminal illegal immigrants.
And he called for a serious approach to preventing the kind of homegrown terrorism that has come to define how the Islamic State, or ISIS, imposes its will by inspiring “lone wolf” Americans to attack domestically.
“We are in the highest threat environment I’ve seen in my tenure as chairman,” McCaul said. “Our country is less secure than it was eight years ago. We are grappling with the calamities of retreat and a failed foreign policy. We still find ourselves in a struggle against Islamist terror. We face difficult choices that will determine if the conflict takes years or if it takes lifetimes.”
Here are the policy prescriptions McCaul offered for dealing with national security and immigration.
‘Shutting Down Terrorist Pathways’
McCaul said Republicans in Congress will work with Trump to “start shutting down all terrorist pathways into the U.S.”
McCaul, like Trump, wants to suspend the U.S. refugee program to resettle Syrians fleeing war and terrorism until “we can get the right protections in place.”
The Obama administration counters that the current vetting process for Syrian refugees is the most stringent screening for any category of legal immigrant. It has admitted more than 14,000 Syrian refugees since last October.
“We are a compassionate nation, and have a very proud tradition of welcoming refugees, but we can’t allow terrorists to take advantage of our humanitarian efforts,” McCaul said.
The Daily Signal previously reported that Trump has the authority to immediately pause the U.S. refugee program completely, or restrict refugees from specific countries.
Trump can also limit other forms of legal immigration to the U.S., as he and his incoming administration have hinted they may try and do.
“We are in the highest threat environment I’ve seen in my tenure as chairman,” says @RepMcCaul.
McCaul signaled he would support doing that, saying the U.S. “must immediately suspend immigration from high-risk countries.” McCaul did not specify which countries fit that criteria.
Foreign travelers to the U.S. who are not subject to these suspensions should still receive “extreme vetting”, McCaul said, which he defined as increasing visa security by deploying more investigators at diplomatic posts abroad.
“Our goal should be to be able to identify and exclude individuals who have ties to terror, who advance Islamist extremism, or who support the overthrow of our government or Constitution,” McCaul said.
‘Stop Radicalization From Within US’
McCaul agrees with Obama on at least one aspect of counterterrorism policy.
In their speeches, both leaders emphasized the importance of preventing domestic terrorist attacks committed by vulnerable U.S. residents and citizens who are often radicalized online.
Recent homegrown terrorist attacks include the Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings at Fort Hood, Texas; San Bernardino, California; and Orlando, Florida.
The George Washington Program on Extremism reports that since March 2014, 111 individuals have been charged in the U.S. of offenses related to helping, planning, or acting on behalf of ISIS.
McCaul’s approach to this challenge is similar to Obama’s in that he believes the U.S. government can work with Muslim leaders across the country to defend their communities against extremist ideology, and spot warning signs.
Many communities have already developed their own innovative strategies, as The Daily Signal has reported, and the Obama administration is supporting some of these efforts with grant money.
McCaul said he wants to narrow Obama’s counter-radicalization efforts to focus primarily on Islamic extremism.
He also called for working with the private sector to remove terrorist content from the internet, and enhancing counter-message propaganda using local Muslim voices.
“We need to repeal and replace President Obama’s failed and politically correct countering violent extremism policies,” McCaul said. “We should focus on more than generic violence prevention. We should target the specific threat we face: radical Islamic terror.”
Boost Border Security
McCaul proposes a “military style” approach to border security.
He said Republicans in Congress should act quickly to help fulfill Trump’s biggest campaign promise.
“Next month, people will get what they asked for,” McCaul said. “We are going to build the wall. Period.”
Trump will need Congress to appropriate money to finish construction of a wall across the southern border, even if it’s not brick-and-mortar, but rather, extended fencing. McCaul also wants more Border Patrol agents, and enhanced aerial surveillance.
McCaul prodded Mexico to better secure its own southern border to prevent Central Americans from traveling there en route to the U.S.
Central Americans escaping violence and poverty now make up the largest group of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally.
McCaul said he’d support Trump if he sought to overturn Obama administration immigration policies that were enacted by the executive branch.
For example, Trump could cancel Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which has provided deportation protection and work permits to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
McCaul said he agrees with Trump’s pledge to focus enforcement on illegal immigrants with criminal records, and that Congress should work with the president-elect to block federal funding from sanctuary cities that limit their interaction with federal immigration authorities.
‘Fix Broken Bureaucracy’
The agency that Trump and Republicans will task with implementing their proposed reforms must be “fixed,” McCaul said.
The Department of Homeland Security, established after the 9/11 attacks, is a sprawling agency with more than 240,000 employees who do everything from fighting terrorism to enforcing immigration laws.
On Wednesday, Trump nominated retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly to run the Homeland Security Department beginning next year, according to news reports.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kelly, among other things, would be tasked with restoring morale amongst employees in the agency who have lacked it.
“DHS plays a vital role in stopping bad people and bad things from getting into the U.S., and there have been improvements, but morale at the department is terrible and too often the mission has gotten drowned out by organizational infighting,” McCaul said.
McCaul offered one policy proposal to reform an aspect of the department: He called for the revamping of the Transportation Security Administration so that airports can appoint screeners from private industry in addition to government employees.
Fighting a ‘Silent War’ in Cyberspace
To respond to a “watershed” era of cyberattacks from foreign actors, McCaul is promoting an aggressive U.S. government response.
“We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” McCaul said. “When they do, we must respond forcefully, publicly, and decisively. The United States should respond to cyberattacks in a way that will make our adversaries think twice about doing it again.”
McCaul cited an October hacking attack that disrupted major U.S. websites, and the breech of Office of Personnel Management’s database last year, a break-in that exposed the records of more than 22 million current and former federal employees. U.S. government officials have said they suspected the involvement of the Chinese government in the latter attack.
And this election season, the Obama administration accused Russia of hacking U.S. political organizations.
Broadly, McCaul said the U.S. government, as it has been, should work with state and local governments to protect their networks and share cyberthreat data.
He said his “highest priority” is to encourage the formation of a single agency within the Homeland Security Department to handle cybersecurity.