A Department of Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary had no answers for Congress last week when questioned about the U.S. visa waiver program, leaving Republicans worried that “DHS seems clueless about what is going on with potential threats to our security.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing last Thursday to address the vulnerabilities of the U.S. visa waiver program, and assess what the U.S. government has done to prevent terrorists from abusing the VWP.
Established in 1986, the VWP allows nationals of certain countries to enter the U.S. as temporary visitors (nonimmigrants) for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa or undergo an in-person interview at a U.S. consulate. Currently, nationals of 38 countries can enter the U.S. without first obtaining a visa under the VWP.
Attention has been directed toward the VWP of late because of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. At least five of the attackers were French nationals and one was a Belgian national. Nationals of both France and Belgium are able to enter the U.S. under the VWP.
Thousands of Westerners have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight with extremist groups. Individuals from VWP program countries who return could then enter the U.S. by taking advantage of the VWP.
Lawmakers had requested that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson testify before the committee, but the agency sent Kelli Ann Burriesci instead because she is supposedly the resident expert on these issues.
But Burriesci, whose full title is deputy assistant secretary of screening coordination Office of Policy, Department of Homeland Security, could not answer a single question about the VWP or anything else Republicans threw at her.
Rep. Jim Jordan (OH) asked her how many Americans had traveled to Syria, the number of Americans who had traveled to Syria and returned, the number of Syrian refugees who have entered the country in the last year, the number of visa waiver program overstays, the number of visa waiver overstays who may have been to Syria before they came here, and the number of Americans on the no-fly List. Burriesci was unable to provide answers to any of the questions.
Burriesci came to the hearing totally unprepared to answer basic questions about her supposed area of expertise. It was not the first time a government bureaucrat in the age of Obama had stonewalled Congress by acting (or actually being) clueless, but this time our national security was at stake — and Republicans were particularly alarmed.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, expressed frustration mid-way through the hearing and asked Burriesci if there is someone she can call to get help.
“You can’t give us the number of people on expired visas? You have staff? Can they just call DHS so we get it before the hearing is over?” DeSantis asked. “This should not be that difficult.”
Burriesci did not respond to that question and continued to struggle.
“What percentage of the people leaving the [United States] are you able to capture?” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) asked.
“I … I may have that with me but I have to look,” Burriesci said while shuffling through papers. “I’m sorry. I do not have that statistic.”
“You’re supposed to be the expert on this,” Chaffetz responded. “This should be right off the top of your head. You’re coming before Congress. … These are basic questions about the functionality here.”
DeSantis ultimately noted that Burriesci’s testimony was troubling.
“This is not inspiring a lot of confidence and I think a lot of questions have been raised instead of answered,” he said.
DeSantis expressed his frustration in a statement following the hearing:
“Islamic jihadists are on the march and 13 people were massacred in San Bernardino, yet DHS seems clueless about what is going on with potential threats to our security,” the lawmaker said. “Congress needs to plug holes in immigration programs ranging from the visa waiver program to the refugee program. The testimony by DHS today gave Americans serious cause for concern about whether our government has a handle on the threats we face.”