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WASHINGTON – The Obama administration's commitment to take in potentially thousands of Syrian refugees is raising national security concerns among law enforcement officials and some congressional Republicans who fear clandestine radicals could slip into the country among the displaced.
The administration has vowed to help those who fled the civil war by providing homes, furniture, English classes and job training in the United States. It says they'll be subject to intensive screening before entering the country, and that the overwhelming majority are vulnerable women and children.
"These are people I think that if most Americans met them, their instinct would immediately be, 'We have to help these people,'" Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But without reliable intelligence within Syria, some argue that it's impossible to ensure that someone bent on violence or supporting a militant cause doesn't come in undetected.
The issue came to the fore at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing earlier this month, when Michael Steinbach, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, said the information the intelligence community would normally rely on to properly vet refugees doesn't exist in a failed country like Syria.
"You have to have information to vet, so the concern in Syria is that we don't have systems in places on the ground to collect the information," Steinbach testified.
More than 3.8 million Syrians are believed to have fled their country in the four years since an uprising against President Bashar Assad led to a civil war.
Most who have resettled have traveled to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But those avenues are strained. Lebanon announced plans last month to impose restrictions on Syrians trying to enter the country, and an international human rights group accused Jordanian authorities in the fall of deporting vulnerable refugees, including wounded men and unaccompanied children, back to Syria.
The United States last year resettled nearly 70,000 refugees from dozens of countries and accepts the majority of all referrals from U.N. refugee programs. More than 500 Syrian refugees are in the U.S., and plans call for adding a few thousand more in the next couple of years.
But aid groups say they'd like to see the U.S. move more quickly to take in more, given the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
"They need countries like the United State that have capacity to host significant numbers to really start to share that burden," said Anna Greene, a policy and advocacy director at International Rescue Committee, a New York-based humanitarian organization.
As the Obama administration pushes to boost the numbers, three Republican members of Congress — Reps. Peter King of New York, Michael McCaul of Texas and Candice Miller of Michigan — have asked the administration to say how many Syrian refugees it plans to resettle and to provide a timeline and steps to ensure they're not a security risk. They warned that a weak screening process could become a "backdoor for jihadists."
When McCaul raised the issue Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry, Kerry assured him that the refugees would be subject to "super-vetting" and that if the FBI expressed concerns about someone, that person would not be let in. "We have amazing ways of being able to dig down and dig deep," Kerry said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
The security concerns echo those voiced over the past decade, when large number of Iraqis sought U.S. refuge from that country's war.
Two Iraqi refugees who entered the United States in 2009 were charged in Kentucky two years later with plotting to send weapons and money to al-Qaida operatives in Iraq. The case raised particular alarm within the intelligence community because one of the men was able to enter the country even though his fingerprints years several earlier had been left on an unexploded bomb in Iraq. In 2011, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller said the FBI was scrutinizing Iraqi refugees already in the U.S. for possible links to al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq.
U.S. officials say they've since tightened the controls.
The FBI's Steinbach told Congress that unlike Iraq, where Americans personnel on the ground were able to gather intelligence, there's no comparable "footprint on the ground in Syria."
"All of the data sets, the police, the intel services that normally you would go and seek that information, don't exist," he said.
State Department officials say refugees are screened more carefully than all other visitors to the United States, checked against all databases maintained by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies and undergo extensive medical checks and fingerprinting. Specially trained officers from the Homeland Security Department conduct overseas, in-person interviews with those seeking refuge. Refugees are far more likely to be victims of violence than criminals themselves.
"I think if we talk about just this faceless mob of people from conflict-ridden lands, it seems very scary," the State Department's Richard said. "But if you meet individuals and individual families, you start to understand the very, very human nature of what it means to be a refugee."
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