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U.S. News and World Report: What Really Keeps Americans Safe

Jan 20, 2016
Congress must stop exploiting fears and refocus on promoting policies that actually secure the U.S. against evolving threats.

The following article appeared in U.S. News and World Report January 20, 2016. A link to the article can be found here.

by Mike Quigley

The deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have opened up a new front in our war against the Islamic State group, exposing vulnerabilities that Congress has a responsibility to respond to both at home and abroad. In these trying times, Congress needs to provide leadership and answer the question: What really keeps Americans safe?

As a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I am briefed daily about the threats facing our country and what we are doing to stop them. The evolving nature of these threats requires us to continuously re-evaluate what reforms are necessary to keep us safe. Americans are understandably concerned for their safety, but we must not allow fear to lead to overreaction, bad policy and unintended consequences. Spending trillions of dollars and risking thousands of lives in another sustained ground war in the Middle East will not keep Americans safe. Calling for religious tests to enter our country will not keep Americans safe. And ending refugee resettlement in the U.S. will not keep Americans safe. In fact, the intelligence community has warned that overreactions like these are exactly what the Islamic State group wants. 

Playing to people's fears may garner attention, but it won't produce results. It's time for Congress to refocus its efforts on the measures that will actually keep Americans safe.

First, we must strengthen our intelligence gathering capabilities and increase intelligence sharing with our allies to destroy the Islamic State's safe haven, identify further plots and hunt down would-be terrorists. On the ground intelligence is essential to defeating the Islamic State group, and Congress should provide our military leaders with the authorization and funding necessary to support increased special operations forces, supplying us with the eyes and ears we need to achieve our goals in the region. We should also amplify our satellite reconnaissance capabilities to supplement our human intelligence and help take out Islamic State leadership. Congress should continue to support U.S. efforts to track and eliminate the terrorist group's funding. And we must provide leadership in the international community to establish a higher level of cooperation, information-sharing and joint action on intelligence. It's time for Europe to follow our lead and boost their intelligence resources, and for our Middle East partners to take on a larger role.

Second, we must ensure that our intelligence community is working alongside all levels of law enforcement to increase security and awareness here at home. Congress should further secure our border by enhancing the security of the visa waiver program and strengthening refugee screening to make the process as safe and efficient as possible. We need to increase federal funding for fusion centers like the one we have in Chicago, which enable federal, state and local law enforcement to better share intelligence, expertise and resources to help prevent and respond to terrorist threats. Congress also needs to boost Homeland Security grant funding for major urban areas so they can provide the planning, training, equipment and police manpower necessary to respond to national security challenges while streamlining federal processes so cities can access those dollars faster.

Third, we must respond to the Islamic State group's evolving and sophisticated use of technology, such as encrypted communications and their on-going exploitation of social media. Encryption scrambles communications, making it impossible for law enforcement to access the interactions of suspected terrorists and creating a significant hurdle to tracking "lone wolves" hiding in plain sight. Congress must strive to strike the proper balance between privacy and security when it comes to encryption, but we can't stand by and allow suspected terrorists to continue to go undetected. 

Additionally, the Islamic State group puts out nearly 90,000 messages a day on social media and is highly effective in using the internet to disseminate propaganda, radicalize and recruit followers, provide operational support to foreign fighters and inspire homegrown terrorists to conduct jihad. A larger countermessaging digital effort by the U.S. is needed, and that includes amplifying more moderate voices within Islam who can discredit the Islamic State's extremist views and calls to violence.

And finally, Congress must work harder to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous people by enacting common sense gun legislation. While no perfect solution exists to end all gun violence, we know from the experience of other countries that a combination of small but practical policy solutions can severely reduce it. This includes strengthening our background check system, whose weakness is being exploited by homegrown terrorists at gun shows across the country, and closing the "terror gap" loophole, which allows suspects on the FBI's Terrorist Watchlist to legally buy guns. Strengthening our background check system also includes gun shows. It also means increasing prosecutions for those who try to buy a gun illegally and banning powerful assault weapons and high-capacity magazines designed to inflict as many deaths as possible.

The scores of terror plots thwarted since Sept. 11 were prevented by a combination of good policy, good intelligence and good police work. The U.S. has the capabilities and the know-how to defend against violent extremists. That's why Congress must stop exploiting people's fears and work together to keep Americans safe.