AG Lynch: Vetting Syrian Refugees 'Does Present Challenges to Law Enforcement'

By Susan Jones | November 18, 2015 | 7:40am EST
President Obama named Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General, and in this photograph he applauds her at her June 17, 2015 swearing-in ceremony. (AP File Photo)

( - Attorney General Loretta Lynch admitted on Tuesday that vetting Syrian refugees "does present challenges to law enforcement."

"However, that does not mean we will stop trying to obtain data and utilize that screening system," she told the House Judiciary Committee. "But certainly, as the (FBI) director has indicated, there are challenges to a system based upon the amount and type of data that one can obtain."

She spoke on the same day that President Obama mocked Republicans for being afraid of "widows and orphans."

Lynch was asked multiple times by different lawmakers about the integrity of the process used to screen Syrian refugees. President Obama has agreed to admit 10,000 of them to the United States this year.

"As you know, (FBI) Director (James) Comey was here just a couple of weeks ago, and we asked him some questions," Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) told Lynch. "He testified before this committee that the FBI cannot offer absolute assurance that there is no risk associated with the current Syrian refugee crisis.

"In fact, when I asked him specifically about the security gaps in Syria, he said the challenge we face with Syria is that we don't have that rich a set of data...So in other words, he's saying we have the ability to query the information that we have, but we don't have a good set of data. We don't have a good set of intelligence. Do you agree with that assessment?"

Lynch told Labrador, "Certainly, with respect to the information coming into our databases from Syria, as the director has noted, it does present challenges to law enforcement. However, that does not mean we will stop trying to obtain data and utilize that screening system and I certainly want to convey our commitment to doing that.

"But certainly, as the director has indicated, there are challenges to a system based upon the amount and type of data that one can obtain."

Labrador followed up: "Obviously, your administration is doing everything possible to gather the information that we have, but the problem is that we don't know what we don't have, especially because the intelligence on -- on these people is -- is not as fast as it was in Iraq, for example. Isn't that correct?"

"Well, certainly, every -- every country presents a different scenario in terms of the information that we can gather from them," Lynch replied. "And certainly, while Syria does present its challenges, I'm not able to unequivocally say that we obtain no data from them."

"I don't think that's what I said," Labrador cut in. "I just said that -- that we have some problems. In fact, (Comey) said, 'I would say we have a less robust data set dramatically than we had with Iraq, so it is difficult.' Would you agree with that assessment?

"It certainly does present challenges, yes, Congressman."

Labrador noted that he asked Comey what the FBI can do to improve background checks on Syrian refugees: "This is one of the things that scared me the most. He said, 'That's one I don't have a good answer for.' So, do you have a good answer for what we could do right now to improve dramatically, the intelligence that we have on these Syrian refugees?" Labrador asked Lynch.

"Well, Congressman, what I can tell you (is) that both the FBI director and I will do everything in our power to continue to protect--"

"I know you will do everything in your power," Labrador interrupted. "And I appreciate your answer, but what specifically are you going to do, so I can go back to the people of Idaho and let them know that the Syrian refugees that may be coming to the state of Idaho had been properly vetted? Not just vetted, but properly vetted, so we know exactly what their backgrounds are."

Lynch said the vetting procedure relies on more than just databases. "Every refugee from whatever country who chooses to come here or to try and come here is also subject to a robust interview process, as well as a biometric analysis of -- of the individual who is literally in front of that interviewer. Something that unfortunately, Europe does not have the ability to do at this time, placing them in a dramatically different situation than us."

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked Lynch, "[D]o we have biometrics on the Syrian refugees or the migrants? Do we have fingerprints, do we have digital photographs of those? And is that part of the background check?"

"It depends on the individual circumstance," Lynch replied. "I mean, a number of people do come in and do have that information, and a number of people do not. If they come in, as I've indicated before, as part of the process that information would be gathered and also stored in a database."

King noted that you can't do a background check on information you've just gathered, because it doesn't reveal anything about a prior record. King also said he recently visited Europe to investigate the influx of migrants, and he said he's been told that European countries are not collecting fingerprints or photographs at all.

"And so I'm very troubled about the level of confidence you seem to exude here, or the president exudes, on an ability to do background checks when I see a huge haystack of humanity," King said. "And in that haystack are the needles that are terrorists...And so, do you actually believe that the administration altogether can ensure America with any degree of confidence that they can identify someone who will be radicalized because of their association, especially with their religion and their family members, that they will be transferred into here in this country?

"Well, Congressman, as I indicated, we do have a robust screening mechanism. As I also's a challenging circumstance in order to ensure that we have the information that we need to make the determinations on who can come into the country and who cannot come into the country."

King concluded: "Let me suggest, it doesn't seem at all robust to me. ...If they don't have a legal existence in their home country, then how in the world can we possibly do a background check on people that, from a legal perspective, didn't exist before they showed up here at the borders of the United States? We're faced with that constantly."

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