Briefings on San Bernardino attacks leave Congress uncertain what to do

Yvette Velasco’s sisters release doves during her funeral Thursday. Velasco was one of the 14 people killed in the San Bernardino shootings.
Yvette Velasco’s sisters release doves during her funeral Thursday. Velasco was one of the 14 people killed in the San Bernardino shootings. AP

Members of Congress received secret FBI briefings Thursday on the San Bernardino shooting and were left still scrambling for answers about what happened and what can be done.

California Democrats demanded the lifting of a decades-old ban on federal research into gun violence, while some Republicans in Congress said the shooter’s neighbors didn’t report suspicious activity to law enforcement because of “political correctness.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that among the unanswered questions were why Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik decided to attack Farook’s workplace rather than a more symbolic target. Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on counterterrorism, called for round-the-clock surveillance of the Muslim community.

Several lawmakers called for tightening the process for getting a fiancé visa, which Malik, a Pakistani national, used to get into the United States. But with little information on how Malik, despite interviews and background checks, was able to avoid detection of her radical views, it’s not clear what can be done.

“We’ve got to learn from this,” said Rep. Ami Bera of California, a Democrat from Elk Grove. “Lone wolf cases like this are very difficult to track.”

California Democrats are aggressively calling for gun control measures in the wake of the shootings, and they demanded Thursday that a lifting of the ban on research into gun violence be included in a spending bill needed to keep the government from shutting down after Friday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Mike Thompson of St. Helena used a Capitol Hill event commemorating the third anniversary of the deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, to call for ending the research ban.

“For nearly 20 years, experts at the CDC have been prohibited from researching the causes and best ways to prevent gun violence,” Thompson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t gone near the gun issue since Congress blocked funding for such research in 1997.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., when he was asked about the demand by California Democrats to include language lifting the research ban as part of the must-pass spending bill, said, “I’m not going to negotiate current negotiations through the media.”

FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and John Mulligan, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, briefed members of the House and Senate in classified sessions Thursday.

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters afterward that neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw “suspicious things occurring around where these two killers were living” but didn’t tell law enforcement.

He and other Republicans said the neighbors apparently “didn’t want to be accused of being discriminatory” against Muslims by reporting them.

“They saw activities going on in and out of the garage at various times of the day and night that they thought were suspicious,” Goodlatte said.

Schiff, a Democrat from Burbank, said it wasn’t clear from the investigation that anything members of the public saw would have been enough to prevent the shooting or was suspicious enough to be “apparent without the benefit of hindsight.”

Schiff said it was still a mystery why the shooters, who amassed a large arsenal of ammunition, chose to attack Farook’s co-workers instead of another target.

“The early indications that there was some kind of an argument at the site have proven to be erroneous,” he said.

Lawmakers from both parties are considering more restrictions on the visa programs that allow foreigners to come to the United States.

Schiff said the issue came up in the classified briefing, with discussion of “whether there are holes in that process that need to be plugged and some other ways we can strengthen that process to prevent people from using either the fiancé visa or the marriage visa or any other visa program to enter the country with the purposes of ultimately carrying out an attack.”

If you don’t have any reason to suspect an individual or a couple, then it is pretty tough to know where to look at in the haystack.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina

Several lawmakers said they didn’t learn anything from the briefing that wasn’t already being reported in the news media.

“It was notable for the lack of anything that would appear to be classified,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat from San Rafael. “It’s what I could read in The New York Times this morning, or McClatchy.”

Members of both parties were reluctant to blame U.S. intelligence failures for the attack, despite the fact that Farook, an American citizen, and Malik were talking together online about jihad and martyrdom as far back as 2013.

“If you don’t have any reason to suspect an individual or a couple, then it is pretty tough to know where to look at in the haystack,” said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Explain to me how you do that without any breadcrumbs that are obvious, without somebody that is inside a mosque or inside a person’s family that tips you off. In this case, there was nothing like that that gave them reason to look at this couple sooner than after the attack.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Congress was looking at whether there had been missed opportunities to stop the shooting but hadn’t found them.

“The work that was done leading up to the incident was as good as it could be. There don’t seem to be any smoking guns, unfortunately, except for the ones that killed so many people,” he said.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said, however, that after listening to FBI director Comey at the briefing he was very concerned about U.S. security. He cited encrypted messages sent from a shooter in Garland, Texas, earlier this year to an overseas terrorist that the FBI hasn’t been able to decipher.

Rep. King of New York went further than other lawmakers and called for “surveillance in the Muslim community here in the United States.”

“The only way you’re going to find out this in advance is to do the same type of 24/7 surveillance that was done in Italian-American communities when they were going after the Mafia and in the Irish communities when they were going after the Westies,” he said, a reference to an Irish-American gang active on New York City’s West Side.

Maria Recio, Victoria Whitley, Eleanor Mueller, Grace Toohey and Alexandria Montag contributed to this story.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas