WASHINGTON — Republicans are protesting the Obama administration’s plan to lift a 1983 ban on nuclear and aviation training for Libyan nationals in the U.S., noting that the Department of Homeland Security’s reasoning didn’t mention the Benghazi attack or the responsible terrorist affiliates at work in the country.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter in November to DHS about the proposed change, with a March follow-up to Secretary Jeh Johnson after they found out the administration had moved forward with the rule change without responding to lawmakers’ initial concerns.
“The U.S. relationship with Libya is anything but normal, as evidenced by the September 11th assault on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya and horrific murder of our ambassador to that country over year ago. Not only did four Americans die on that date, but, as we previously documented, numerous other terror threats have continued from Libya in recent months,” they wrote in the March letter. “…While this rule is in the final stages of review prior to publication, the Administration continues to ignore Congressional inquiries.”
“In light of the continued national security threat to America, we find the planned policy reversal to be dangerous and irresponsible,” the chairmen continued. “The decision to lift the ban on allowing nationals of such a terror-plagued country to come to the U.S. to engage in flight-related training is particularly disturbing in light of the role such training played in the preparations for the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Further, lifting the ban on Libyan nationals to come to the U.S. to study nuclear science and related fields is incomprehensible in light of the peril the U.S. and its allies in the Near East face from the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons technology by terrorists or hostile nations in the region.”
The State Department formally requested in 2010 that DHS lift the ban, arguing that relaxing the Reagan-era regulation was needed to allow aviation and nuclear-related “bilateral security cooperation” with the Libyan government. Dictator Moammar Gadhafi wasn’t ousted until 2011.
The Defense Department joined the State Department’s entreaty in 2012, and the Energy Department sent it own letter to DHS asking that the policy be rescinded.
Libya is currently the only country expressly blocked from seeking studies or training in aviation maintenance or flight operations in the U.S. DHS began the process to repeal the regulation under then-Secretary Janet Napolitano in February 2013.
The administration argues the regulation isn’t needed because visa applicants would be screened like all other nationals against watch lists and databases.
At an under-the-radar hearing last week before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Goodlatte said the February 2013 memo signed by Napolitano “fails to mention the attack in Benghazi.”
“The long-standing prohibition on Libyans was put in place to protect the homeland against serious threats from terrorists from a particularly unstable and dangerous country. The Obama administration argues that it is no longer needed,” the chairman said.
“…Four 9/11 hijacker pilots obtained their expertise in aviation primarily at U.S. flight schools. Do we want to risk Libyan terrorists learning how to fly airplanes in the U.S.? Given the desire of radical regimes and terrorists to obtain or build nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, do we want to possibly train Libyan terrorists in nuclear engineering? If the prohibition is lifted, not only can Libyans supposedly vetted by the administration receive this training, but any Libyan can seek to do so.”
Goodlatte stressed it “does not appear that national security has been adequately considered” in the effort to end the ban.
“It is uncertain whether our immigration system has sufficient integrity to ferret out applicants’ long-term motivations for receiving an education in sensitive topics from the United States,” he said.
Assistant Director of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer Alan Bersin, who wrote the February DHS memo, said the draft regulation is still under review at the Office of Management and Budget.
“In formulating my policy recommendation to then-Secretary Napolitano, I primarily evaluated the visa and border security measures currently in place,” Bersin testified, adding that since the policy’s implementation decades ago “the U.S. Government has constructed a visa vetting process that leverages state-of-the-art technology, extensive information sharing, highly-skilled and trained officers, and thorough interagency cooperation.”
James Chaparro, executive vice president of Strategic Enterprise Solutions and a former deputy undersecretary at the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, told the committee that “while it is clearly in the best interest of the United States to strengthen relations with Libya, it is also in our interest to ensure that we keep our own citizens safe from harm.”
“How confident are we that Libya has sufficient internal controls, including effective anti-corruption measures, to effectively manage the issuance of passports to its citizens?” Chaparro asked. “…How confident are we that Libya is able to adequately control its own borders to stem the flow of terrorists and terrorist facilitators into Libya? How confident are we that our own intelligence services are fully capable of understanding, at a granular level, potential threats posed by individuals in Libya? What are the benefits to lifting the [8 CFR 214.5] restrictions, and do they outweigh the potential risks?”
“Allowing Libyan citizens to come to the United States to study and train in the fields of flight operations, aviation maintenance and nuclear-related fields poses some potential benefits, but also poses many, many risks,” he said. “…I would rather explain to the government of Libya why we want more time to carefully evaluate this issue, than to have to explain to the American people what happened if something went horribly wrong.”
Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission, noted that “even after the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans and Ambassador Christopher Sands on September 11, 2012, the State Department did not retract its request to the Department of Homeland Security, nor appear to adjust its analysis.”
The pending rule “makes no mention of issues raised by this attack, subsequent threats against America from Libyan factions, or the Libyan government`s current concerns with its own stability.”
Administration correspondence “asserts that the Libyan government wants 5,000 Libyans to have access to nuclear-related science education visas,” she added. “How can the United States be assured that Libyan government- sponsored visas will continue to be sponsored by a non-terrorist regime upon the close of study of these individuals, which could be anywhere from one to four or longer years in the future?”
Kephart concluded “there is no doubt that terrorists present a national security threat to the Libyan government that could open up the same threat to the U.S. if we release highly desired visas to Libya at this time.”
“Without a robust plan in place that assures security vetting for both nuclear and aviation visa applicants` eligibility, it is of concern that the terrorist organizations that currently plague the Libyan government could attempt to infiltrate the program, the Libyan government could fall to an unfriendly regime, or the Libyan government itself could have an unstated agenda,” she said. “All of these indicators point to holding off on the rescission, and perhaps even point to Congress considering visa policy across the board for a increasing number of countries in similar crisis.”
Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, though, argued that repealing the regulation “is necessary to give the U.S. the required flexibility to help the Libyan government in its difficult transition.”
“Overwhelmingly, the country’s Islamists reject violence for political means. Like other Libyan politicians from across the ideological spectrum, they remain committed to moving the country forward on a democratic path. And they welcome greater cooperation with the U.S., provided it is done in a way that is respectful of Libyan sovereignty and rests on a foundation of mutual trust,” Wehrey told the committee.
Repealing the ban would build “trust,” he added, and be “a small but important step in enabling the country’s democratically elected government to protect its citizens and territory, combat violent extremism, and advance the hard-won gains of its revolution.”