Rep. Michael McCaul endorses plan to tighten visa-waiver program

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. McCaul called for tightening the U.S. visa waiver program.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. McCaul called for tightening the U.S. visa waiver program. McClatchy

Following last week’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address on terrorism, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, called on Monday for the White House to stop “downplaying the threat” of terrorism.

In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, McCaul said the United States should change the nation’s visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 allied countries to come to the United States without visas for 90 days.

McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security committee, endorsed H.R. 158 – the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 – saying it would better prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

The bill would require the traditional vetting of individuals who’d visited what McCaul called “terrorist hotspots” before entering the United States.

“It will strengthen intelligence information-sharing with our allies,” McCaul said. “It will crack down on passport fraud, and it will force the visa waiver countries to ramp up counterterrorism screenings of travelers.”

The bill’s effectiveness could be questioned with the news that 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik – one of the suspected San Bernardino shooters – had gotten a fiancée visa and permanent U.S. residency. According to the current procedure, Malik would have gone through at least two interviews, a terrorism background check and a criminal background check before being cleared to come into the country.

It will strengthen intelligence information-sharing with our allies.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas

The White House announced last week that it would make changes to the visa waiver program, including gathering information on travel history that might include what it called “terrorist safe havens.”

A bill in the Senate would require fingerprints for travelers coming into the United States and prohibit anyone who had been in Iraq or Syria in the past five years from entering without a visa.

McCaul recently sponsored a House bill to prevent Syrian and Iraqi refuges from entering the country without first being certified by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence.

The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 289-137, with 47 Democrats in favor.

In his speech Monday, McCaul called the fight against terrorism a multifaceted one and criticized the current strategy.

“There’s no national strategy to deal with combating terrorism and foreign fighters,” he said. He said his committee was drafting a bill to combat “violent extremism.”

“We don’t have a strategy,” he said. “So I think you’re going to see a bill in the near future that will deal with that issue.”

McCaul defended his refugee bill Monday, saying members of the Islamic State wanted to “exploit the refugee process to infiltrate the West.”

“I can reveal today that the U.S. government has information to indicate that individuals tied to terrorist groups in Syria have already attempted to gain access to our country through the U.S. refugee program,” he said.

When asked to identify his source, McCaul declined to comment. He said his sources were anonymous members of the intelligence community.

“I don’t want to get into specifics, to protect my sources,” McCaul said. “That was very courageous of them to come forward in that . . . given the political debate on the Hill with the Syrian refugee bill. I think it demonstrates why that bill is so important.”

Hours later, though, his office sent a news release correcting his statement and noting that intelligence officials have been concerned with “individuals with ties to terrorist groups in Syria,” not necessarily the Islamic State.

Whitley: 202-383-6131; @victoriahart2