Not Tough, Not Smart: What Trump Gets Wrong about Vetting and the Justice System
Knee jerk responses based on prejudice rather than facts aren’t going to keep us safer.
The day was bound to come when President Trump had to deal with an attack on U.S. soil committed by a Muslim. Unsurprisingly, his response has been more knee jerk than a sober rational reaction to the tragedy.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting last month, Trump refused to draw any inferences about how to prevent such attacks. But within minutes of Tuesday's attack in downtown Manhattan, with only the barest of information about the alleged attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, Trump attributed it to ISIS and a failure of our immigration system.
This time, apparently undeterred by lack of information, Trump has called on the Department of Homeland Security to “step up extreme vetting,” meaning more extreme than what he’s already proposed. Wednesday, he said he would consider sending Saipov to Guantanamo.
The reason for the differential treatment is plain: Tuesday’s attack fits Trump’s narrative about dangerous Muslims in a way that the white shooter in Las Vegas never did. But responses based on prejudice rather than facts aren’t going to keep us safer.
The President has long been a fan of what he calls “extreme vetting,” which he claims will keep potential terrorists out of the United States. The concept is a companion to the ban on travel from Muslim countries, which federal courts have described as “dripping with religious animus” and repeatedly blocked from implementation.
Beyond its discriminatory impulse, there is no evidence that the U.S. needs to overhaul its vetting procedures. In fact, a recent report by the Brennan Center shows that the U.S. already has one of the world’s most stringent visa vetting systems.
Anyone seeking to come to the United States has to provide extensive biographical information in support of their application, including details of previous passports, family members, places of employment, and residences, as well as their travel history.
A person who becomes eligible for one of the 50,000 visas available via the diversity lottery because their country of nationality is underrepresented in immigration to the United States must provide this information going back up to 15 years. For perspective, the form used by the federal government for individuals seeking a top-secret security clearance only asks for such information going back 10 years.
Consular officers carefully examine this information, searching for inconsistencies and anomalies. They screen the names and biometric data of applicants against a range of U.S. government and international databases containing voluminous law enforcement, intelligence and immigration holdings, including classified information, to verify their identities and assess whether they pose a security risk. If anyone raises the slightest suspicion, they do not get a visa but rather are flagged for additional review.
As a federal court of appeals recently concluded, “There is no finding that present vetting standards are inadequate, and no finding that absent the improved vetting procedures there likely will be harm to our national interests.”
Indeed, the information thus far available about the alleged perpetrator of yesterday’s attacks shows the futility of placing the blame on the visa system. Like the small number of foreign-born individuals who have committed attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, Saipov came to the United States years before the attack: in 2010.
No screening system can predict what a human being will decide to do seven years in the future.
The President also used Tuesday’s tragedy as a reason to attack our federal court system as too soft on terrorists and is reportedly considering Saipov to Guantanamo where he would be tried by a military court. This is unlikely to result in the swift justice the President claims he wants.
Civilian courts have been far more effective and efficient in dealing with terrorism cases than the tribunals at Guantanamo. Federal courts have handed down convictions in scores of terrorism cases, while the military tribunal in Cuba has not even managed to try those accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks.
A measured response may seem inadequate when we are faced with our own vulnerability to violence. Tuesday’s attack took place just blocks from where I live, on a path where I often bike and run with my children. But if the attack was terrorism as the President assumes, its goal was to make us scared and overreact. Our goal must be not to give terrorists what they want and stand #NYCStrong.