- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2015

Republican presidential contenders outlined a series of strategies Sunday for thwarting terrorism — including dialing up U.S. snooping powers, repelling Syrian refugees and spying on U.S. mosques — even as the Homeland Security secretary said no credible threats of a Paris-style attack on U.S. soil exist and urged Congress instead to reform a visa waiver program that allows easy travel from Europe.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reiterated his opposition Sunday to accepting thousands of Syrian refugees, including children, unless there is a major overhaul of the vetting process.

“We should set up a safe haven in Syria so these folks don’t have to leave their country in the first place,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the 5-year-olds and widows often cited by President Obama are “common-sense applications,” but the U.S. should be worried about the others.

“What about someone who doesn’t fit that profile? There is no reliable database that we can rely on. There is no existing government institution in their home country that we can call up and run them against,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”

Mr. Rubio said a force of Sunni Arabs backed by American special operations forces is the only clear path to defeating the Islamic State. Though based in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni Islamist group displayed its reach in Nov. 13 attacks on Paris that killed at least 130 people, kicking off a round of anxiety in the U.S. and debate over Mr. Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Hoping to calm a jittery American public, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his agency and leading police departments will drill their teams ahead of holiday season events, including the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.

Meanwhile, Belgian officials shut down the subway system in Brussels over the weekend and asked the public to avoid large crowds because of the risk of an imminent attack.

“We have no specific credible intelligence about a threat of the Paris type directed at the homeland here,” Mr. Johnson told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We are always concerned about potential copycat acts, home-borne, homegrown, violent extremism of the types that we’ve seen in recent months and years.”

Congressional Republicans and 2016 presidential candidates, meanwhile, have warned about terrorist plots down the road if extremists use the Syrian refugee program to sneak into the U.S.

Front-runner Donald Trump, who roiled the waters this weekend by repeated unsubstantiated claims that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the Sept. 11 attacks, said the refugees should not be let into the U.S.

He called for a database of those who do make it through the vetting system — an apparent clarification of remarks that suggested he wanted a database of all Muslims, though even that clarification was ambiguous.

When “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos asked him directly whether he was “unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?” he answered “no, not at all,” but then immediately began talking about a database on Syrian refugees.

“I want a database for the refugees if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are. When the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don’t know if they’re ISIS, we don’t know if it’s a Trojan horse,” he told the ABC show.

Mr. Johnson said about 2,100 Syrians have been resettled through a “very extensive vetting process” and that the real concern is a visa waiver program that makes it easier for travelers from some countries, mainly in Europe, to get onto U.S. soil.

The fear is that native-born European Muslims will be recruited by the Islamic State — a dynamic that played out in the Paris attacks — and then take advantage of their countries’ cozy relationships with the U.S.

“The visa waiver program is something that we’ve been focused on, frankly, since I’ve been secretary, because there are a number of foreign terrorist fighters who have gone into Iraq and Syria from countries in Europe and elsewhere.”

He said the program shouldn’t be eliminated, however, because of its popularity and frequent use.

“There are security enhancements that we have made, and we should evaluate whether more is necessary, and I’m happy to have that conversation with our friends in Congress,” he said.

Mr. Christie said Congress should reverse its vote in June to wind down the National Security Agency’s “metadata” phone program, which collects the numbers, times and durations of all Americans’ phone calls.

“We need to rebuild that program. We need to rebuild the morale of our intelligence,” he said, highlighting his anti-terror efforts as a federal prosecutor in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “We need to support law enforcement, which this administration hasn’t been doing.”

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and leading critic of bulk data collection, said the snooping powers are still in place for now in the U.S., and France has similar power, yet it didn’t thwart the attacks.

“I’m very worried about that because I think when you have a fearful time or an angry time, that people are coached into giving up their liberty,” said Mr. Paul, a presidential candidate who, like Mr. Rubio, called for an Arab-led attack on Islamic State fighters that would amount to “Sunni Muslims defeating Sunni Muslims.”


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