The Senator Also Questions the Witness on Southbound Trafficking that Supports Mexican Cartels, Implementation of Bipartisan INTERDICT Act, and Combating Domestic Terrorism
WASHINGTON – Senator Maggie Hassan today pressed acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Kevin McAleenan on a number of critical national security concerns during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, including the release of convicted American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and the 245 cases of child separation that have occurred since a federal judge ruled that these separations must end.
Senator Hassan began her questioning by asking Mr. McAleenan how federal agencies share information about the release of a terrorist offender with local authorities. The question comes in response to the release of the convicted American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, who was arrested in 2001 a few months after the September 11 attacks.
“Last week, Senator Shelby and I sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons expressing concern over the anticipated release of John Walker Lindh as well as 108 other terrorist offenders scheduled to be released in the next five years,” Senator Hassan said. “One of our concerns is the lack of an adequate process to notify federal, state, and local officials where a terrorist offender will be released. Mr. McAleenan, do DHS Fusion Centers receive information from the Bureau of Prisons or Probation and Pretrial Services regarding the release of a terrorist offender? And what’s your process for sharing this information with local authorities?”
Mr. McAleenan replied, “That’s a good question, Senator. I’ll look into that and get back to you on that.”
Senator Hassan continued to press Mr. McAleenan and received an assurance from him that he would work with relevant agencies to develop a strategy to ensure that all necessary federal, state, and local officials have the information that they need to keep communities safe when these individuals are released.
Senator Hassan went on to inform Mr. McAleenan that in March she requested the case files for the reported 245 child separations that had occurred since a federal judge ruled that these separations must end, and received a letter from Mr. McAleenan two days ago saying that they could not provide specific information on these 245 cases. Senator Hassan noted that six migrant children have died in federal custody since December, raising serious questions about the treatment of children at the border.
Mr. McAleenan repiled, “Any separation that is occurring now is occurring for the benefit of the safety of the child. This is in compliance with the court order in Mrs. L, it's in compliance with the executive order from the President from June 20th of last year. So we're seeing that even though we have 1500 to 2500 to some days over 3000 families, the separation is only occurring one to three times a day.”
Senator Hassan also questioned Mr. McAleenan on the southbound trafficking of illegal goods, the DHS’s implementation of the bipartisan INTERDICT Act that Senator Hassan cosponsored and the President signed into law, and what the DHS is doing to combat domestic terrorism – which was also the subject of a letter Senator Hassan sent to the DHS along with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) this week.
Senator Hassan: Thank you Mr. Chair and Ranking Member Peters and thank you Acting Secretary McAleenan for being here to discuss all these important topics. Mr. Secretary as I'm sure you're aware convicted American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is reportedly being released from federal prison today. Last week Senator Shelby and I sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons expressing concern over the anticipated release of John Walker Lindh as well as 108 other terrorists offenders scheduled to be released in the next five years. One of our concerns is the last of adequate process to notify federal state, and local local officials where a terrorist offender will be released. Mr. McAleenan, do DHS Fusion Centers receive information from the Bureau of Prisons or Probation and Pretrial Services regarding the release of a terrorist offender? And what’s your process for sharing this information with local authorities?
Mr. McAleenan: That’s a good question, Senator. I’ll look into that and get back to you on that.
Senator Hassan: So moving forward, can I count on you to work with relevant agencies to develop a strategy to ensure that all necessary federal, state, and local officials have the information that they need to keep communities safe when these individuals are released?
Mr. McAleenan: Yes.
Senator Hassan: Thank you. Later today I’m headed to the southern border with Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Peters and Senator Hawley to assess the situation on the ground. I took a similar trip last year to talk to port officers and ICE detention officers. I was impressed by my visits to El Paso and McAllen, Texas, where I saw the robust screening effort conducted by CBP of incoming traffic from Mexico, and we talked a little bit just now about some of the technology that helps officers kind of immediately look - see what's different in a car that the surface looks like a typical car. However, stopping the drug cartels is not solely a matter of securing traffic coming into the United States. We have to attack the cartels' business model. That means stopping the flow of both drug money and weapons that travel southbound into Mexico from the United States. Unfortunately, as I saw on my trip last year, our current southbound screening effort is inadequate. We were told we need expanded facilities, more personnel and updated technology in order to try to strengthen our ability to stop the flow of guns and money back into the cartels' hands. So, Mr. McAleenan, I will ask you the same question that I asked Secretary Nielsen last year. Are you satisfied with the current state of southbound inspections?
Mr. McAleenan: No, I agree strongly with you that we can do more and part of the non-issue inspection equipment that we're going to be purchasing with the FY 19 funding will go to outbound lanes. But to your point, we've been doing outbound alongside our border patrol agents and CPB officers jointly. We don't have agents available to do outbound right now, they're doing the inbound humanitarian mission. So we also can improve our efforts in coordination with the government of Mexico. So I think there's a lot to do in that area and we can get stronger.
Senator Hassan: Given the number and the humanitarian crisis that we're seeing now I'm taking that you wouldn't say we've made real progress on this issue since last year on southbound?
Mr. McAleenan: The one area we’re making progress is in acquiring more systems that will allow us to screen more vehicles going southbound and more canine teams and in our overall hiring of CPB officers that will strengthen our base on the southwest border, but no with our agents now redeployed on humanitarian missions with a new government coming in and establishing new relationships on the investigative side I think we can do a lot more this year.
Senator Hassan: One of the other things I heard last year was that it my take some work and planning with local authorities on both the north and south side of the border to configure things in a way that allows those inspections to take place without interfering with local traffic and the like. Is that something you guys have been addressing?
Mr. McAleenan: Absolutely, every port of entry has plans for how to do outbound inspections given their unique flow of traffic, given the unique configuration of the footprints of ports of entry which again have been there for a long time and were designed in a much lower volume of flow both north and southbound, so yes we have plans locally for increased outbound efforts.
Senator Hassan: Well I would look forward to working with you on that and I'll take that as a commitment to continue to work on that, because I really think until we get to the southbound flow we're not going to break up these business models.
Mr. McAleenan: Important aspect of the mission I agree.
Senator Hassan: Mr. McAleenan, back in March I requested from Secretary Nielsen the case files for the reported 245 child separations that had occurred since a federal judge ruled that these separations must end. Understanding the need for privacy and confidentiality, I would have accepted redacted names and addresses. A week after my request, a representative from CBP followed up to say that you, as Commissioner of CBP, could brief me on this matter, but not until 7 weeks after my initial request. We responded with dates and times that worked, but heard nothing back from your office until just two days ago – 10 weeks after my request – when your office replied to say that you could not provide specific information on these 245 cases. I’ll also note that just this week, reports surfaced that - as we talked about - 16 year old Carlos Vasquez has died in federal custody at the border, the fifth child to die and just last night as Senator Peters pointed out we learned about a sixth child's death after apprehension by border agents. This is incredibly disturbing and raises more serious questions about the treatment of children at the border. I know you care about it but we obviously have to be able to implement real plans here to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening. Can you provide any update on the cases of these 245 separated children for us, or about what or about what is CBP doing to provide more accountability for the treatment of children at the border.
Mr. McAleenan: First of all, I'll go back and look at your oversight request and make sure we're responding appropriately and timely, thank you for raising it, I was not aware we had been delayed in that response. Secondly, I just want to emphasize that any separation that is occurring now is occurring for the benefit of the safety of the child. This is in compliance with the court order in Mrs. L, it's in compliance with the executive order from the President from June 20th of last year. So we're seeing that even though we have 1500 to 2500 to some days over 3000 families, the separation is only occurring one to three times a day. So it's extraordinarily rare and under very controlled circumstances.
Senator Hassan: So I thank you for that answer and because I'm running out of time I want to be respectful of the time here, this is not all necessarily on you and your agents, but this Administration has given a variety of stories about family separation since they even officially began so you can understand from an oversight point of view in order to protect children we need this information and we need to engage with you to ensure that what you're intentions are what you're saying to me now is actually what's happening. Thank you Mr. Chair.
Senator Hassan: Well, thank you Ranking Member Peters, again Acting Secretary thank you for spending a long morning with us, we appreciate it very much. I want to follow up with two questions, they're both follow ups really in a way to others. Senator Portman talked about our ongoing battle about opioids generally but fentanyl in particular, last Congress we passed and the President signed into law the INTERDICT Act which provides more technology for border agents to detect fentanyl at the border, when I was at the border last year I heard agents still didn't have access to this equipment, Former Secretary Nielsen stated that it was unacceptable when she testified before this Committee last May, can you provide an update on the status of implementing the INTERDICT Act?
Mr. McAleenan: I believe we've implemented the INTERDICT Act at the highest traffic locations for concerns for fentanyl or synthetic opioids and we've dramatically increased our testing capability across the board. That doesn't mean we have it everywhere we need it or in every port of entry, the investments in FY 19 which we're currently procuring and deploying will help augment that but absolutely we'll look at our lay down and make sure it's comprehensive and supports this critical mission area.
Senator Hassan: So are all the FY 19 funds, have they been spent?
Mr. McAleenan: Not yet, no. They're currently in the planning and deployment stage.
Senator Hassan: And are all the machines you have operational at this time?
Mr. McAleenan: Any new machines purchased under the INTERDICT Act - unless there's a maintenance issue, yes they're operational.
Senator Hassan: What still needs to be done, just expanding them to other sites?
Mr. McAleenan: Correct. We deploy on a risked-based, prioritized basis so that will be the mail facilities, express consignment, the major southwest border points of entry and then we try to get to the rest of the key areas.
Senator Hassan: Do you have the funding that you need to do that?
Mr. McAleenan: I believe so, I'll report back to you if we're missing resources.
Senator Hassan: Please do, we'd love to stay up to date on that with you. I also wanted to follow up on the issue of domestic terrorism. I greatly appreciate the attention of DHS and my colleagues on fighting domestic terrorism against houses of worship or faith-based groups. As Senator Peters just mentioned, like him, Senator Grassley and I have also sent your agency a letter expressing concern over the rise of domestic terrorism and requesting more information on what DHS is doing to prevent and mitigate this threat to ensure public safety. I want to ask you just a series of questions to get a better sense of the resources that the Department has dedicated to combating domestic terrorism. And since we got limited time let's see if we can do a lightning round. I take it that you agree that domestic non-foreign terrorism organizations inspired terrorism is on the rise as stated in this Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism?
Mr. McAleenan: Yes.
Senator Hassan: Given the emphasis of domestic terrorism in this national strategy does DHS have a 2019 strategy specifically addressing the rise in domestic terrorism threats?
Mr. McAleenan: So we're working on formal strategy but we do have that as a priority operational efforts already.
Senator Hassan: As you work on that formal strategy once you get it down I take it you will share it with the Committee?
Mr. McAleenan: Yes.
Senator Hassan: On a related note, what percentage of the Department’s budget is specifically dedicated to addressing domestic terrorism and how does that amount compare to previous years?
Mr. McAleenan: I don't have that information here but we can get back you on that.
Senator Hassan: Do you know - and thank you I would love it if you would get back to us on that - how many intelligence analysts at DHS headquarters tasked with the primary responsibility of covering domestic terrorism are there?
Mr. McAleenan: I'll get back to you on that as well, but what I can tell you is that under Under Secretary Glawe, he's forward deployed a number of the intel analyst to work directly embedded with state and locals around the country, not only in our fusion centers, but in key sheriff and police departments around the country and that's one of their focus areas.
Senator Hassan: And I'll ask a similar update about how many policy and program staff you exclusively focusing on domestic terrorism.
Mr. McAleenan: Ok
Senator Hassan: I shared the concern that it is on the rise here, I have been concerned that resources that once were devoted to domestic terrorism have been taken and used other places and it’s one thing to say we care about it and we are committed to it - which I believe and I understand it's another thing to have the resources, personnel, focus to do it and I'll look forward to that update from you and thank you.