Cipher Brief Expert View: Travel Ban Undermines U.S. Credibility

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued a memorandum stating that foreign countries are required to provide increased information and data about their citizens who are seeking to travel to the U.S. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA, to discuss these additional regulations as well as perceptions of the U.S. travel ban around the globe.

The Cipher Brief: How unusual is it to require traveler biometric and biographical data from all countries worldwide? How likely do you think it is that these countries will comply with this order?

Richer: They are doing a number of things. One is that they are issuing clearer instructions so that people showing up at embassies applying for visas are not turned away because they don’t have the right documentation, which, having worked in many of those embassies, becomes a problem. So they are saying, when you come to the embassy, we are going to require this type of data. They’re clarifying what the requirements are, and they are trying to make it easier for people applying for visa to know what they need to go through the process.

What these new guidelines reflect are in fact what has been dictated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in terms of what they want people to have. It’s the State Department’s job to work that process.

Number two, it’s to make the process as easy as possible. A majority of that information is already required, and a lot of that information is acquired by the embassies working with the local governments. So they haven’t really done a whole lot here except try to clarify things.

TCB: Will other countries comply with these new guidelines? Does this help address the terrorist threat?

Richer: Let’s be very specific here. Regarding the terrorist threat, the incidents that we’ve had in the U.S. have been homegrown. They’ve been second-generation immigrants and not people who would have been subjected to this ban for the most part. In fact, what the State Department and DHS are trying to do is look to the future.

But if you look at what’s going on in the terrorism world over the last two years, particularly the ISIS-driven stuff, it has been more low-level attacks; it’s been cars, knives, and guns. There have not a been a significant number of sophisticated operations, and very few cases where sophisticated documentation has been used to smuggle anyone anywhere.

So what they are trying to do here is build a higher wall – if we want to use that analogy for President Donald Trump – to combat the potential of more sophisticated attacks. To be frank, I think they are going a little too far.

In terms of the governments working with us, most governments will work with us, particularly if it’s a requirement when flying to the U.S. and their own officials are coming to the U.S. You do reach a threshold, though, where reciprocal actions start to take place. People start saying, you’re asking us to have A,B,C, and D to get things done, and we just give you a visa when you show up in our country.

We are already starting to see some pushback in places where people are saying, hey, you can come here and do all of your business in my country without a visa or with a basic visa, but we can’t do anything in the U.S. So there is some animosity and friction growing there.

No one wants terrorism. However, we are starting to see animosity. I hear from quite a few people overseas that the U.S. is basically trying to have its cake and eat it too.

If you look at what France and other countries that have suffered these horrendous homegrown attacks have done, they haven’t really changed the thresholds for their visa requirements. They’ve gotten a little better on background checks, but they realize it’s hard to defeat someone who is already in your home.

TCB: How can the U.S. measure the effects of the travel ban? 

Richer: There really is no way to gauge the effectiveness and say, oh my gosh, these guys didn’t get visas so we saved the U.S. That doesn’t happen. There is no way to measure it short of us catching a bad guy who tells us that we’ve been trying to get people into your country for a certain period of time, but we can’t get through the biometrics and visa process. That hasn’t happened.

It’s kind of a false positive or a false negative, depending on how you look at it. Our domestic security services are doing a really good job in this country, and they know what they’re looking for. When it’s homegrown, they may be a second or third generation of another ethnic background or from another country, and that skews the results.

TCB: Is this part of the Trump Administration’s larger counterterrorism strategy? Is this another way for the Administration to exert its authority in this area?

Richer: The travel ban was a political promise. President Trump, when making his statement back when he was campaigning about having a travel ban and radical Islam, was saying so with a great sense of naiveté and without being educated about the problem. He didn’t understand what our homeland security protocols were; he didn’t know what the visa protocols were. He didn’t know, and still may not know, how good our intelligence services overseas are.

If you view it in retrospect from the end of last year, before President Trump took office, we’ve done a darn good job in this country – we being the intelligence community, the security services, the local police, and religious leaders.

President Trump is also surrounded by people who believe all of that – White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Advisor for Policy Stephen Miller, and Senior Counterterrorism Advisor Sebastian Gorka. This became an easy thing to throw to the base, just like getting coal jobs and health care revision.

But what’s funny is that the reality of the world is not what they thought it was. However, particularly because the president is a man who stands by what he says in terms of promises, whether they are right or wrong, the Administration can’t admit that maybe they miscast something and say, “Now that we know what’s in the job, here is what you have.”

What’s happened is that the ban has had its ups and downs, mostly downs over the last seven months. It has been subject to the whims of an administration not wanting to say that we did have it right before – those things planned under President George W. Bush and carried forward by President Barack Obama.

So what you have is less about this having a real effect because remember, there hasn’t been a grandfather, uncle, or a cousin, or anyone of a first generation immigrant involved in an attack.

From my optic, that’s what this is. The information isn’t there, and we have not seen [terrorists] arrive in our country, because our process works, and we are pretty good. This is more about showing success.

TCB: How is the travel ban perceived around the world?

Richer: One of the things people are missing with this – and this was in dialogue early on when the ban was started – is that when we push for more documentation above what we required already, and with our strained approach where we have to kick people out, we are not doing ourselves well and are pushing people towards extremism, or at a minimum, not particularly liking us.

To give you an example, there was the robotics team of females from Afghanistan who have been building robotics projects, and they were invited to a conference in the U.S. that was supposed to take place last week. But because the Supreme Court allowed the new ban to go forward, even though these young high school- and college-aged women had been vetted, checked, and were coming here just for a robotics event, we turned them away.

And this is a country where we are trying to generate more gender equality and a liking for us. What we just did was undermine these women and the credibility of the U.S.

Bottom line, when we look at this a couple of years from now, we will probably have done more damage to our reputation by pushing more people to, at a minimum, disliking the U.S., if that’s even possible in some of these countries, or towards embracing extremism no matter their political or religious affiliations, than we have at succeeding in protecting ourselves. 

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