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US Senate Hears That Terrorists Are Coming From Up North; Canada Shakes Its Head

The Homeland Security Committee is concerned about Syrian refugees coming into Canada and bringing terrorism across the border. Canada, much less so.
February 3, 2016, 5:50pm
Photo via the Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

A kangaroo court in the US Congress heard on Wednesday that Canada's Syrian refugee program amounts to a serious threat to American security, while Canadians tried their best not to laugh.

The hearing, entitled Canada's Fast-Track Refugee Plan: Unanswered Questions and Implications for US National Security, was just another iteration of the myth that just won't die: that the Canadian border is a pipeline for terrorists.

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Between Congressmen on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security fretting that the Canadian-American border is understaffed — despite not knowing how many border guards are defending it — and a Canadian witness using questionable statistics to prove that dozens of Islamic State sleeper cells are sneaking in the country, it's no surprise that the Canadian government boycotted the hearings.

"You would have, for a group of 10,000 [refugees], at just a one per cent failure rate, between five to eight terrorist units each capable to doing one of our cities what they did to Paris."

Ottawa's plan to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees within the next few months — a number that will balloon to 50,000 within a year — has become a subject of obsession for right-wing lawmakers south of the border.

Leading the charge was committee chair Ron Johnson, who is facing a tough fight for re-election in Wisconsin this year, who wanted the witnesses to speak to the "growing" threat of Islamic terrorism and address the threat of Canada's "unsecure" border.

The Republicans found a witness supporting their fears in David B. Harris, a Canadian lawyer who served very briefly in the late 1980s with Canada's intelligence agency, who conjured up some questionable statistics to prove the existence of the threat.

"You would have, for a group of 10,000 [refugees], at just a one per cent failure rate, between five to eight terrorist units each capable to doing one of our cities what they did to Paris," figured Harris, guessing that most terrorist sleeper cells have roughly a half-dozen members. "If you then multiply numbers for the 25,000 contemplated in Canada, you could be looking at 12 and 20 terrorist units."

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Harris didn't offer any actual evidence that Islamic State militants were hiding amongst those living in UN refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, nor that the Canadian screening program is deficient.

Harris has a history in assailing the purported threat of Islamic terrorism in Canada, referring to the country as a "happy hunting ground" for Islamic extremism. Last year, he told the Daily Beast that Canada has started to resemble a "tribal homeland," although his quotes were later pulled from the article.

This isn't the first time that Canada has become accused of letting terrorists slip across the border. Frequently debunked claims that some of the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States through the Canadian border remain doggedly persistent.

Johnson has been especially vocal on the refugee issue, telling CBS News in September that he believes the Islamic State is trying to infiltrate North America through refugee programs.

Canada is not "generally" a threat, he conceded.

"I go fishing up there," he said, but added: "Islamic terror represents a threat. It's real, it's growing, this is a legitimate concern. We are all compassionate, we want to solve these problems, but we want to do everything we can to keep our nation secure."

Canadian government officials declined to appear before the committee.

"We want to deal with the facts. We're not naive enough to suggest that there's not a lot of politics in this."

"We have made it very clear that our security processes have been vindicated by the heads of our three security agencies," Canada's immigration minister, John McCallum, assured reporters on Tuesday. "We have been in frequent touch with members of the US administration who are satisfied with what we are doing, and we have communicated on this issue every day speaking to you and answered any questions that have been posed to us."

While McCallum wouldn't comment specifically on the hearing — saying simply that if the US Senate wants to engage in these activities, "that is their right" — Ottawa seems unimpressed by the committee.

"If I'm an ISIS person…trying to do mayhem, why would I take two years to get here? What would I go through the most intrusive process to get here?"

A letter sent from the Canadian ambassador in Washington, Gary Doer — who also declined to testify — told the committee that it should "rest assured that no corners, including security screening, are being cut in order to achieve the government's objectives."

Doer told the Canadian Press: "We want to deal with the facts. We're not naive enough to suggest that there's not a lot of politics in this."

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The lack of expert testimony or experience on the committee became obvious, as Senators appeared unsure of the population of Canada, while witnesses did not know the number of guards stationed along the border.

Democrats sought to turn the tables on the committee, with Democratic Senator Cory Booker praising Canada's refugee plan as a "preemptive strike against future radicals" because it seeks to move those vulnerable for radicalization out of refugee camps.

Booker and his colleagues repeatedly remarked on how difficult it would be for a potential terrorist to make it through the rigorous American and Canadian refugee screening systems.

"If I'm an ISIS person…trying to do mayhem," asked Democratic Senator Tom Carper. "Why would I take two years to get here? What would I go through the most intrusive process to get here?"

"It seems like an inefficient process," agreed Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute

for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was supportive of Canada's refugee efforts. "Canada is focusing on low-risk groups," she told the committee, adding that women make up 60 percent of the Syrian refugees, while another 22 percent are children.

"This is not an ISIS demographic," she said.

Dean Mandel, a US border agent testifying on behalf of the National Border Patrol Council, urged the senators to beef up personnel along the northern border so they can better detect terrorist threats without relying so heavily on their Canadian counterparts.

"We have failed to properly invest in our northern border," said Mandel.

For Guidy Mamann, a Toronto immigration lawyer who has worked in Canada's federal immigration department, said he has faith in the refugee screening process, and that the government's desire to welcome people fleeing war is admirable. But, when pressed to find a security flaw in the process, he said the worst that could happen is that immigration officials might get overwhelmed under pressure.

"These men and women are going to be under tremendous pressure to get the job done," he said."My concern is that when people are fatigued, when they are tired, they aren't effective. You've asked me to talk about security implications, that in my mind would be the security implication, not that they are going to cut corners, but they're going to be tired."