The bloody scene at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where a gunman who authorities say aligned himself with the Islamic State killed 49 people last weekend, is the latest reminder of gaps in the U.S. fight against terrorism, says U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top intelligence official in Congress.
Depending on whom you ask, the mass shooting in Orlando should spur changes to gun laws, Muslim immigration to the United States, or government counter-terrorism intelligence tools, or spark a more direct physical fight against the Islamic State in more than a dozen countries worldwide.
Burr says it should do all of the above.
During a high-profile televised Senate hearing this week, Burr emphasized his long-held position that the United States should attack Islamic State fighters overseas.
“Take on ISIL (Islamic State) over there,” he said in an interview with McClatchy on Thursday, shortly after the hearing.
“We’ve added boots to the ground,” he said. “I know we’re not supposed to say that, but there are almost 6,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. … We’re really close to the number we’ve got in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. has increased military pressure, he said, but resources are stretched too thin and President Barack Obama’s “containment” strategy in the Middle East isn’t working.
“I guess one could say I’m surprised something didn’t happen in between San Bernardino and Orlando,” Burr said, referring to the Dec. 2, 2015, shooting rampage that left 14 people dead and 22 seriously wounded. “When you look at as many global threats as I do every morning, I’m probably more shocked that something doesn’t happen every week.”
The theme of the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman’s week – and many others as officials heard from CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday – was that terrorists operate on a “global battlefield.” Brennan estimates there are up to 22,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria – down from close to 30,000 last year – and thousands more in other countries.
“Containment,” Burr says, isn’t effective when terrorists recruit fighters globally via social media and encourage those sympathizers to carry out attacks wherever they live.
“We must attack them where they raise funds, where they plan and where they recruit,” Burr said during the hearing.
The FBI’s investigation so far of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, a U.S.-born citizen, shows he was inspired to use violence over the past few years but was not “directed” by Islamic State leaders, Burr said. Government officials were still analyzing Mateen’s communications, travel and possible ties to terror groups.
The attack reignited debate in Washington over gun laws, immigration policies for refugees and visa-seekers, and government access to encrypted data housed on cell phones.
There’s enough evidence today from law enforcement and others that they aren’t confident they’ve got the ability to certify (a) person is who they think they are. … Let’s pause until they can do that.
Sen. Richard Burr on Donald Trump’s proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim entries into the United States
After presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump again caught heat this week from some Republican leaders in Congress for calling for a “pause” or “ban” on some Muslims entering the U.S., Burr defended the idea. Trump, Burr said, has moved away from wanting a total ban and he now wants to hit “pause” on letting in certain Muslim refugees or immigrants from particular countries.
“There’s enough evidence today from law enforcement and others that they aren’t confident they’ve got the ability to certify (a) person is who they think they are … Let’s pause until they can do that,” Burr said.
Burr, like many other Republicans this week, said he’ll work with Democrats leading the call for gun laws that would prohibit suspected terrorists from buying weapons. Monday will bring more Senate debate on at least four measures related to terrorist “watch lists” and access to guns.
He supports a “no-fly, no-buy” approach, Burr said Thursday, referring to a key provision. Democrats are seeking to ban gun sales to people whose names appear on the U.S. government’s “no fly” list.
If the proposal includes a “due process” provision that would allow U.S. citizens to refute the evidence that’s landed them on the list, Burr says he supports the idea.
Still, Burr says, he’s not sure Republicans and Democrats can pass a compromise gun law. “Can we reach an agreement that finds the right balance? Yes. Will we?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
Some national security experts say it doesn’t take act of Congress to keep terrorists away from guns.
The FBI has the authority to adopt policies for a “red flag” at the point of sale if someone previously under investigation for terror ties tries to buy a gun, says Matt Mayer, a former Department of Homeland Security adviser and current fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank.
Top FBI officials and others, like Burr, say the agency followed procedures on investigating Mateen, placing him on a watch list but later removing his name. Based on current law and policies, Burr said, it looks like the FBI did all it could have done to prevent Mateen’s attack.
Mayer says an alert system in place after someone is dropped from the FBI’s watch list would have given officials a better chance at stopping Mateen. Such a policy would have notified officials to Mateen’s gun purchase and would have given them a chance to re-evaluate his status on a watch list. Then, Mayer said, intelligence officials might have found Mateen was casing out Orlando’s Disney World and the Pulse nightclubs as potential targets and might have discovered evidence of his visits to websites aimed at recruiting Islamic State fighters.
A push to send more troops into Islamic State territory could also be effective, Mayer said.
But, he criticized the senator’s encryption legislation proposal unveiled in April with ranking Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. The proposal would force U.S. companies to help the federal government obtain data on phones and computers used by suspected terrorists. Some consumer and civil liberties advocates have urged caution over the proposal, worried it erodes personal privacy and requires tech companies to build in “back doors” around security features.
CIA Director Brennan stopped short of endorsing the encryption bill put forward by Sens. Burr and Feinstein, but said he’s concerned about his agency’s ability to root out terrorism in the ‘new frontier’ of digital communication.
Instead, Mayer said, Burr should spearhead calls for a congressional committee to study encryption, the highly secure communications often used by average consumers but also by criminals. He said the committee should also make recommendations to Congress for new laws.
Burr has signaled he’ll drive a slow but steady push for stronger laws to make sure federal officials aren’t hampered by encryption technology. Some tech companies, he said, already have told him they support the proposal he and Feinstein put forward, though he declined to name which ones.
The CIA’s Brennan stopped short on Thursday of endorsing the encryption bill. But, Brennan said he’s concerned about his agency’s ability to root out terrorism in the “new frontier” of digital communication.
One of the intelligence committee’s most vocal opponents to encryption legislation, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., repeated his concerns about the bill Thursday.
“That’s representative of the diverse feelings in the country,” Burr said. “Our hope is that there can be a majority that gets behind something. ... We’re going to move forward because you can’t not address this and believe you can keep the American people safe.”