While President Obama is focused on getting money to friendly-ish Syrian rebels, Congress is increasingly demanding he take more steps to stop militant fighters from coming to the U.S. by stripping Americans of their passports if they join the fight and by suspending countries that have large contingents of foreign fighters from the Visa Waiver Program.
More than half of the countries on the U.S. visa waiver list — including most close European allies — have had citizens join the fight in Syria, according to data from a June report by the Soufan Group. Analysts said they could use their passports to bypass initial levels of scrutiny by U.S. screeners.
“Islamic extremists holding British, German, French or other European passports can simply get on a plane and fly to America without a visa. The safety and security of Americans should be of the highest priority, and this Visa Waiver Program puts the American people in great danger,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat who has two tours of duty as an Army National Guard captain under her belt.
Meanwhile, the estimated 100 or more Americans who have joined Islamist militants could pose a special danger to the U.S. if they bring their jihad back home.
In a letter last week to the State and Homeland Security departments, 14 Republican senators asked Secretary of State John F. Kerry to use the authority the law grants him to revoke passports of anyone who is discovered to have joined the militants.
Their concern underscores realities of war in the 21st century.
Instead of joining an opposing state’s military, defectors often subscribe to a militant ideology that makes them intent on striking at Americans, said Michael Rubin, who was an official at the Pentagon in the Bush administration and is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Rather than singling out certain countries for suspension from visa waivers, he said, it makes more sense to cancel the program and move toward a system that would require every non-American to be granted visa approval before flying to the U.S.
“It’s a conversation that will start now, but isn’t really going to be embraced by the bureaucracy until we suffer an attack,” Mr. Rubin said.
A State Department official acknowledged the authority to revoke passports of those deemed to be national security threats and said that power would be used “based on the circumstances and evidence.”
“The regulation permitting revocation by the secretary of state is an extraordinary provision,” the official said. “The secretary must be satisfied that sufficient evidence exists to meet the necessary threshold for revocation in each individual case under this provision.”
The issue is bound to come up Wednesday when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies to the House Homeland Security Committee. Mr. Kerry also could face questions over the program in appearances before Congress this week.
White House deputy press secretary Shawn Turner also said the government has methods to screen out potential dangers. “Risk indicators,” he said, might include travel to a terrorist safe haven.
Mr. Turner said risk indicators could subject a traveler to extra screening and could even cancel a trip.
“Law enforcement and the intelligence community is working hard on this issue,” he said. “They are sharing information about suspicious individuals to identify the ‘unknowns,’ and DHS continues to take steps to enhance aviation security at overseas airports with direct flights to the United States, and other nations have followed with similar enhancements.”
Thirty-eight countries are part of the Visa Waiver Program, which allows their citizens to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without having to obtain travel visas. Of those 38 countries, 21 have citizens who have traveled to fight alongside militants in Syria and Iraq, according to the Soufan Group’s analysis this summer.
More than 700 French and about 400 British citizens were estimated to be fighting.
Neither the French nor British embassies had a comment Monday on discussion of having their participation in the waiver program suspended.
U.S. legal analysts, meanwhile, said there are obstacles to stripping citizenship rights from Americans who travel for jihad. In previous wars, Americans would renounce their citizenship or specifically take up arms as part of an enemy force, which would be a demonstration of their renunciation.
But in the current conflict, the enemy is an ideological force.
Mr. Rubin said stripping passports or citizenship is likely to be an “uncomfortable conversation” for Americans, but it’s one that will be necessary. He said it also will raise questions about birthright citizenship for those born on U.S. soil who have no allegiance to the country — a thorny question that is part of the immigration debate.
“If the president and Congress are working overtime to find reasons to change the standards for who can become an American citizen, there’s no reason they can’t work just as hard to examine the reasons by which people can stop being American citizens,” he said.
Some estimates put the figure of Americans fighting in Syria and Iraq at more than 100, though officials say the numbers are difficult to pin down.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a pilot program to try to get community leaders involved in heading off radicalization of Muslims in the U.S.
“We will work closely with community representatives to develop comprehensive local strategies, to raise awareness about important issues, to share information on best practices, and to expand and improve training in every area of the country,” he said.