Tapping Terrorist Chatter

While Washington wrangles with the legal issues, policy questions and political ramifications stemming from the disclosure of NSA surveillance practices, there remain two starkly and disarmingly germane mega-questions:

Why are American citizens, resident aliens, illegal aliens or fraudulent trespassers who reside in the United States receiving foreign calls from known al Qaeda operatives and other terrorist groups? And, subsequently, does our government have a responsibility to interdict and disrupt terrorist plots before they occur-- even if it means eavesdropping on residents receiving calls from Usama bin Laden?

To be clear, the little information available indicates that the president has authorized the interception of international communications between foreign powers hostile to the United States and individuals who may be their agents in this country. That is not to say that the NSA is intercepting domestic communications beginning and ending within the United States.

Critics argue that the NSA eavesdropping is a direct violation of civil liberties, that Bush is illegally abusing his executive powers--and that somehow the Patriot Act is wrapped up in this First Amendment trampling.

However, setting aside the obvious debate about the legitimacy and legality of the president’s policy (which would be most appropriately conducted in a classified Congressional investigation), why does America harbor people who have connections to terrorist networks and foreign powers hostile to the U.S. in the first place?

Regretfully, the answer resides in the oft-neglected homeland security problem: Massive illegal and fraudulent immigration.

Many of the people who have been identified as communicating with terrorist networks abroad have entered this country by means of illegal or fraudulent immigration, suggesting an illegal immigration problem so great in this country that the system cannot properly screen applicants and safeguard against terrorist-connected entrants.

An issue that was once a primarily socio-economic concern has now woven itself into the very fabric of our homeland security woes. How can we protect the American public from more terrorist attacks when we don’t have adequate knowledge of who actually is residing in our country?

A prime example of such infiltration was enumerated by Janice Kephart, counsel to the 9/11 commission, who investigated 94 terrorists operating in the United States from the early 1990s through 2004 – including six Sept. 11 hijackers.

The results were infinitely disheartening -- two-thirds (59 percent) of the 94 terrorists in her study were found to have committed immigration fraud prior to or in conjunction with taking part in terrorist activities. Of the 59 percent that violated the law, there were cumulatively 79 immigration violations. Once in the United States, 23 terrorists became legal permanent residents. And 21 foreign terrorists became naturalized U.S. citizens.

It is clear: terrorists are exploiting the welcome the U.S. traditionally extends to immigrants and America's historical status as an immigrant nation to conduct in situ terrorist activities targeting America.

Kephart resoundingly concluded, “These gaps [in our immigration system] will remain exploited until the system becomes designed to catch terrorists better.” She said the U.S. can provide sufficient resources to enact such reforms if there is the “political will to enforce the law.”

Recent Congressional action, presidential attention and the American public’s emerging awareness suggests that 2006 may witness the ‘political will’ so necessary to begin managing this problem.

However, even if the immigration system applied strict enforcement of the current immigration law, we still may not be able to keep the bad guys out. Strict enforcement of current laws can only be part of the solution; we must adopt innovative legislation in order to shore up weak areas of the law and keep out dangerous foreign ideologues.

From the American Revolution until 1990, the U.S. has had on our law books the means to exclude or deport radical ideologues who threaten the very safety of our nation. Such legal authority kept our nation safe from people who wished to do us harm – particularly during the major wars of American history.

As James Edwards of the Hudson Institute points out in his research, “Whether the threat came from aliens promoting Jacobinism, anarchism, fascism, or communism, the United States always sought to bar entry of or deport the foreign advocates.” And such measures were successful in helping interrupt foreign conspiracies on our soil.

It should be noted that, under the exlusionary provisions, barring entry to immigrants on the basis of ideology did not mean keeping out people who held unorthodox or creative viewpoints that fell outside the majority or mainstream. The law narrowly defined the beliefs that could be grounds for keeping a person out of the country as “the kinds of beliefs so at odds with fundamental American political principles as to border on treason if held by a U.S. citizen.”

However, the exclusionary laws were repealed at the end of the Cold War as old relics of pre-war hysteria. Today, only terrorists on watchlists can be barred entry.

Our enemies much watch with glee as we churn and agonize over the impossible choice between the civil liberties we cherish and our pride at being a nation of immigrants, all because we seem to choose to ignore the problem of borders we absolutely do not control.

Olivia Albrecht is the John Tower National Security Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Ms. Albrecht researches international relations and national security issues, with a focus on the ‘Islamofascist’ phenomenon. Albrecht previously worked for the Pentagon (Non-Proliferation Policy) and with the Heritage Foundation, and is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy.