By Michael Wilner – McClatchy Washington Bureau
When a U.K. citizen traveled to Colleyville, Texas, to take hostages at a synagogue in January, U.S. law enforcement had no information about his criminal record and terrorist sympathies in their databases. But the British did.
Six months later, Biden administration officials cite Colleyville as a prime example of why it wants other nations to share with U.S. homeland security troves of data on certain citizens who travel here, including police records and biometrics. Biometrics could include fingerprints, facial features and other physiological characteristics that can be used for automated identification.
At least one European Parliament member has been critical of the scope of data that the Americans want on EU citizens. But U.S. officials say information sharing is critical to identifying potential terrorists from entering the country.
“Colleyville, Texas, is a horrific example of why it’s so necessary that we do this,” an administration official said.
Malik Akram, the 44-year-old hostage taker, was investigated by MI5 in 2020 for spending six months in Pakistan. He was considered a “subject of interest” to the British security service until some time in 2021, shortly before he flew to the U.S., bought a gun and took hostages in Colleyville. After an 11-hour standoff, the hostages escaped and Akram was killed by law enforcement.
Existing agreements with allies and partners already require information sharing on terrorist activity and on foreign individuals convicted of serious crimes. But the MI5 decision to delist Akram as a subject of interest in 2021, coupled with the nature of his prior offenses, removed any requirement to flag him to the Americans.
That’s a loophole that the U.S. wants to close with its Enhanced Border Security Partnership, according to senior administration officials. The arrangement would involve information sharing from the 38 countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa.
The EBSP was in the works before the Texas hostage crisis. But the events of Jan. 15 forced the Department of Homeland Security to reexamine the program before the United States formally informed allies of the policy move.
Since the standoff, DHS and the FBI also have conducted a review of what happened and what could have prevented it. Akram told negotiators he wanted Aaifa Siddiqui, a terrorism defendant arrested after 9/11, released from a federal prison in Fort Worth.
Neither U.S. nor British officials were willing to share details on their joint review of the Akram case, or when it concluded.
MORE RIGOROUS VETTING
The new EBSP program will require countries in the U.S. visa waiver program, and those that aspire to join, to begin sharing criminal histories and biometrics on “individuals of concern” by the end of 2026, officials said.
But it is unclear how DHS or partner countries plan to determine what meets this new threshold of “concern.” And some countries in the visa waiver program may have laws of their own that prohibit them from sharing more detailed information on their citizens.
“In all honesty, every country has different authorities and restrictions on what they can share — and in particular, a lot of countries have restrictions on sharing information on their own citizens and different thresholds on when to share,” a senior DHS official said. “This information didn’t hit a threshold, and so we didn’t have information in our systems.”
“We hope that by putting in this enhanced border security partnership, and making it a requirement for the visa waiver program to share criminal history and biometrics on individuals of concern, that will foster them to look at what their thresholds and legal statutory frameworks are,” the DHS official said. “Ultimately, that’s going to help us to ensure that we don’t allow in anyone that our partners believe are of concern, based on what their and our laws can agree on.”
The United Kingdom is already participating in the new program, but DHS officials would not disclose what kind of information is being shared by London thus far.
“We refer you to Her Majesty’s Government for questions regarding what criminal history information the U.K. is able to share with the U.S.,” said a second DHS official when asked whether Akram would have been flagged at the U.S. border if he were attempting to enter today.
The new requirement has gone largely unnoticed in the European Union, which represents the bulk of countries in the visa waiver program, despite the bloc’s strict privacy standards and the apparent threat of new visa restrictions for Europeans without EU compliance.
Dr. Patrick Breyer, a member of the European Parliament for Germany, in June called the new U.S. policy “blackmail” and urged the EU Commission to reject the demand.
“If necessary, the visa waiver programme must be terminated by Europe,” Breyer said in a statement. “Millions of innocent Europeans are listed in police databases and could be exposed to completely disproportionate reactions.”
At a June meeting between DHS officials and members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, the U.S. team said it wanted as much data as European governments could share and threatened to reimpose visa requirements if EU nations fail to comply, Breyer’s office told McClatchy and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
But privately, U.S. government sources said they have not heard of opposition to the program from European governments.
A National Security Council spokesperson said that the Biden administration’s “top priority is to protect our country while enabling legitimate travel and respecting the privacy of individuals.”
“We are always working to ensure our screening and vetting programs, including the visa waiver program, are as effective and efficient as possible, and we coordinate closely with our partners to implement any enhancements,” the NSC official said.
A DHS official said the department will begin assessing on Jan. 1, 2027, whether the actions of countries in the visa waiver program “comply with the EBSP requirement.”
Some U.S. lawmakers want the administration to go further.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill in May, prompted by the Colleyville crisis, that would codify information sharing agreements and require the secretary of homeland security to impose consequences on countries for non-compliance.
Stephanie Dobitsch, deputy undersecretary for intelligence enterprise operations at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged to members of Congress in March that the department was reevaluating existing information sharing agreements under the program, “looking for opportunities to close any gaps.”
A spokesperson for the British government said “the U.K.’s world-leading intelligence agencies and police work tirelessly with their U.S. counterparts to keep our countries safe,” and that, where lessons have emerged from the events at Colleyville, will ensure “they are learnt and acted on.”
But the senior DHS official said that, after the events in Texas, the United Kingdom understands the need to cooperate under the new visa waiver requirements.
“We worked very closely with Her Majesty’s government to review what occurred, what information we had versus what they had,” the DHS official said. “I’m not going to get into specifics that would get into breaching security, but I can tell you that they were a very willing partner in that review, and are interested in moving forward with this enhanced border security partnership.”
“I think they understand the reasons and what this will address,” the official added.
FUNDING TO SECURE HOUSES OF WORSHIP
The rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville has credited years of training for how he and his congregants were able to survive the hostage crisis. The training came from local police, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, a national organization serving as a bridge between Jewish communities and federal law enforcement.
Days after the attack, U.S. officials pledged to increase funding for similar training. And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration would support a dramatic increase in nonprofit security grant funding, which provides financial support for houses of worship seeking to install sophisticated security equipment, such as cameras, metal detectors and bulletproof doors.
In mid-June, the House of Representatives authorized $360 million for the program, an increase in $110 million from 2022 funding levels. “They were able to secure more funding with White House support in the next budget for the same type of grants for training that the rabbi in Colleyville received and put to good use,” a senior administration official said.
Eric Fingerhut, CEO and president of the Jewish Federations of North America, said the NSGP program “literally saves lives, and the need for these protections has only grown amid increasing antisemitic and other hate crimes.”
“We’re extraordinarily grateful to President Biden, Secretary Mayorkas and the bipartisan members of the House Appropriations Committee for heeding our calls to support a vital increase in funding for the NSGP program from $250 million to $360 million,” Fingerhut added, “which will help communities defend themselves against vile acts of hatred. We hope the Senate Appropriators will meet this level as well.”
Still, several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle wrote a letter to Mayorkas in late June calling on the secretary to “advocate for a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy, led by your department, to specifically address the growing problem of domestic antisemitism.”
“Members of the Jewish community have been attacked, and sometimes killed, simply for being Jewish — from Pittsburgh to Poway, from Monsey to Jersey City, and from Lakewood to Colleyville,” 92 lawmakers wrote.
Data from the Anti-Defamation League, they noted, “tracked more than 2,700 reported antisemitic incidents throughout the U.S. in 2021 — the worst year for antisemitism ever recorded, with an average of over seven attacks per day.”
A Justice Department official told McClatchy and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that, in response to the Colleyville attack, the department’s Office of Justice Programs has heightened its focus on supporting local law enforcement to investigate, prosecute, prevent and report hate crimes.
The office recently established two new programs to address hate crimes – the Community-Based Approaches to Advancing Justice, and the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act Programs – awarding grants as early as this fall to help community-based organizations and civil rights groups promote preparedness and issuing grants to local jurisdictions to fund hot lines and improve hate crime reporting by law enforcement agencies.
© 2022 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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Source: American Military News