The horrific attacks in Paris last week which killed over 120 and left hundreds injured, have highlighted the reality that terrorist organizations, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS), are not contained and continue to pose a serious threat to America and our allies.
In the wake of these attacks, the House Judiciary Committee held an oversight hearing of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to examine whether the department is prepared to meet the evolving national security threats facing the homeland. DOJ’s National Security Division handles the national security and intelligence functions of the department, including combating terrorism.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch told the Committee for the first time that the Paris attacks were not just attacks on the people of France, but “attacks against humanity” and the “universal values we share.” She said DOJ remains committed to assisting France in bringing the perpetrators of the attack to justice.
"Our nation faces a host of serious, varied and evolving challenges," she testified, noting that, "Our highest priority must always be the security of our homeland, and we are acting aggressively to diffuse threats. We continue to investigate and apprehend those who seek to harm us, including upwards of 70 individuals charged since 2013 for conduct related to foreign fighter activity, and home-grown violent extremism."
However, DOJ’s ability to respond to national security and domestic threats has been called into question in light of a number of recent actions. DOJ announced last month that it will not bring criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner or any other IRS official involved in allegedly targeting conservative groups.
Following DOJ’s announcement it planned to close the investigation, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) warned “politicization continues to go unchecked by this administration and a Justice Department charged with pursuing wrongdoing.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who led an investigation into the IRS as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, blasted DOJ as giving Lerner a “free pass.”
Goodlatte saidthe IRS scandal highlighted the need for an impartial Justice Department. Several lawmakers expressed concerns DOJ’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server will similarly prove impartial.
“After numerous appeals to appoint a Special Counsel to investigate this, last month the Justice Department announced that no criminal prosecution would be brought against IRS personnel in connection with this matter,” Goodlatte said. “It is not difficult to understand why a Special Counsel was needed given that only those organizations opposed to the President’s overreaching agenda were targeted by high ranking IRS officials. Apparently officials at the IRS share secretary Clinton’s abhorrent notion that Republicans are the ‘enemy.’”
Furthermore, DOJ and the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency have been embroiled in an ongoing dispute over whether inspectors general need full access to all agency documents after DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs asked Congress to pass legislation specifying that only the DOJ Inspector General is entitled to all department records.
DOJ has also come under fire over the committee’s concerns the department is subverting Congress’s budget authority by using settlements to funnel money to third-party interest groups. Goodlatte said DOJ just recently finally produced a small subset of relevant documents that the Committee requested 11 months ago.
Goodlatte asked Lynch, “what you – an experienced prosecutor – would do if a large corporation behaved this way in an investigation.”
Against the backdrop of these controversies, Goodlatte noted the Paris attacks have brought many important issues to the forefront for discussion, including the release of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and the adequacy of the US refugee vetting process.
Apprehension over President Barack Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the coming year has been heightened by last week’s attacks in Paris. More than two 20 governors have expressed opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into their states.
“These public and national security concerns, coupled with unanswered questions about the cost and logistics of bringing detainees into the US, should cause the administration to hit pause on its reckless decision to close the Guantanamo detention facility,” Goodlatte said. “Enemy combatants should remain outside of the United States where they can be detained away from our communities and without needlessly jeopardizing the safety and security of the American people.”
Lynch stated national security and counterterrorism are two of her top priorities — and DOJ’s main concern. She said DOJ will make an effort to vet every refugee coming into the country, and although the crisis in Syria has posed unique challenges to the vetting process, she noted we have a “significant and robust screening system in place—a process Europe has not been able to set up, making them much more vulnerable.”
“I think we’ll be vulnerable, too,” Goodlatte responded.
Lawmakers are skeptical. Homeland Security Today contributing writer Godfrey Garner recently reported 30 percent of those seeking asylum in the United States espouse an extremist ideology—and that that is a conservative estimate—making it vital that the vetting process is sufficiently examined.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has continually called for an in-depth review of the process after pointing out “gaping holes” in the vetting process and FBI Director James Comey testified the government dramatically lacks the resources to fully vet Syrian refugees.
“We remain concerned that these resettlements are taking place without appropriate regard for the safety of the American people,” McCaul wrote in a recent letter to Obama.
Tuesday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called for a pause in the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States and announced he was setting up a task force charged with developing a legislative recommendation to address the refugee situation.
"Our nation has always been welcoming,” Ryan said. “But we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing, is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”