A senior Homeland Security official who last week undermined President Obama’s push to ban gun sales to those on the government’s terrorist watch list now says he was mistaken in his sworn testimony to Congress — but Republicans on the panel aren’t buying it.
Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at Homeland Security, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week that tying gun purchases to the list would be mixing “apples and oranges.”
But in a statement issued through Homeland Security after his testimony, Mr. Bersin now says he is on board with Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats, who have said action is needed after terrorist attacks in Paris and California.
“To be clear, it is the administration’s position that Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun. This is a matter of national security and common sense, and it is a position I and the department support,” Mr. Bersin said in the statement.
The issue has roiled Capitol Hill for several weeks, with Democrats gumming up floor procedures in the House to try to force votes on the sales ban. They point to Government Accountability Office research that found more than 2,000 firearms purchases were approved for people listed in the terrorist screening database, of which the no-fly list is a subset.
Republicans, who have stymied Democrats’ efforts, say the no-fly list is compiled by investigators and bureaucrats without any judicial review, so denying firearms to those on the list would infringe on their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Under questioning last week from Rep. Blake Farenthold, Texas Republican, Mr. Bersin said someone can be listed on the no-fly list for “reasonable suspicion” — a lower test than what courts usually require when the potential denial of a constitutional right is involved. Mr. Bersin also said it’s not easy to get off the list.
Mr. Farenthold then asked if it was appropriate to use that kind of list for “determining whether or not Americans are able to exercise their rights under the Second Amendment.”
“I have not heard that. And I don’t believe that it would be — and I believe it would be apples and oranges,” Mr. Bersin said.
In his statement after the hearing, Mr. Bersin said his comments were “in the context of an extended discussion about screening procedures and in no way call into question my view that terrorists should not be able to obtain weapons.”
Mr. Farenthold, though, said he doubted Mr. Bersin misunderstood the questions and that it sounds like his superiors in the administration gave him a talking-to.
“I think he said what he meant, and his bosses weren’t happy with that answer. We’ve seen that multiple times from this administration,” Mr. Farenthold told The Washington Times.
Sarah Saldana, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified to Congress this year that she would welcome a law cracking down on sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal deportation efforts.
“Thank you. Amen. Yes,” she told Republicans seeking her blessing.
She quickly backtracked, saying a day later that it would be “counterproductive” to pass the kind of law for which she had advocated.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request Monday to interview Mr. Bersin.
Having a master terrorist list was part of the changes post-Sept. 11, 2001. The list is controversial because the government doesn’t publicly release the criteria for how someone can be listed.
Mr. Bersin told Congress last week that there are “just fewer than 1 million” names on the terrorist watch list, while the no-fly list has about 100,000 names.
Republicans say the lists are questionable. The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy once ended up on the list, after a terrorist suspect used the same name as an alias.