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Will Trump's Refugee Order Reduce Terror Threats In The U.S.?


Let's take a moment to consider the stated goal of President Trump's executive order on immigration. The order had a title. This is the title - Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. So let's raise the question. Will it do that? From a pure security perspective, how likely is this to protect the nation by keeping out terrorists? How practical is it?

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, national security correspondent, has been considering that question. Hi, Mary Louise.


INSKEEP: How do you answer that?

KELLY: So I spent yesterday calling around to U.S. officials who have been on the frontlines of the fight against terror. I heard back from 13 of them.

INSKEEP: These are current and former, both?

KELLY: These - mostly former...


KELLY: ...Because they're more free to speak...


KELLY: ...About the current executive order. Thirteen of them, so not a scientific study by any means...

INSKEEP: But a bunch.

KELLY: ...But I made an effort to speak to people who had served in different vantage points so Pentagon, State Department, CIA, etc. - and also people who had served both Democratic and Republican administrations.

INSKEEP: And you said set aside the ethics, the morals, the law, whatever - is this practical? What do they say?

KELLY: I heard from not one of the 13 who got back to me - not one who believes that, from a pure national security perspective, this order is a good idea. In fact, the overwhelming number of people who got back to me said not only will it not protect the U.S. from terrorism but it would have the opposite effect. It will make Americans less safe.

INSKEEP: Why would that be when the practical effect is keeping people out, and, I guess, one of them could conceivably be a threat?

KELLY: Absolutely. And that is the question I put to them. And I want to let you hear some of these voices who I was speaking to yesterday. So No. 1, a lot of concern about the seven countries that are included in the travel ban. That would be Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia. Let me let you hear Phil Mudd. He worked on counterterrorism for both the CIA and the FBI.

PHILLIP MUDD: I don't understand the selection of these countries. What about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt? And if you're worried about people coming into this country, look at where we've seen attacks in the past few years, countries like Belgium, France, Germany, which have very easy visa access to the United States. Why wouldn't you limit them?

KELLY: The short answer, of course, is that banning visitors from France or Germany is picking an awfully big fight. And as to why these seven, there have already been some restrictions on travel from these specific countries. Those were inherited from the Obama years. But Phil Mudd's basic point - and Steve, I heard this from several people I spoke to - is you look at that list of seven, no terrorist from any of those seven countries has carried out an attack in the U.S. in more than two decades.

INSKEEP: They've come from elsewhere or been U.S. citizens...

KELLY: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...In a number of cases.

What do U.S. allies make of all this, and how does that fit into this question of practicality?

KELLY: Let me introduce another voice to answer that. This is Hank Crumpton. He was the chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. He served under President Bill Clinton and under President Bush. And Hank Crumpton's argument is that the best U.S. allies in fighting terror historically - for decades now - have been Muslims, whether you're looking at nation-states, whether you're looking at individual people who have worked with the CIA, tribal leaders, etc. Here's Hank Crumpton.

HANK CRUMPTON: If these potential allies are mistrustful of our country, if they don't hold us in the highest regard when we ask them to risk their lives in cooperation with us, yes, that does put our nation in greater jeopardy, I believe.

INSKEEP: So he's raising the question of blowback. We're already hearing about blowback from Iraqis who are fighting alongside Americans...

KELLY: We are.

INSKEEP: ...Against ISIS, and Iraq is included in this order. What about inside the United States?

INSKEEP: Let me introduce you to one more person. This is Matt Olsen. He was the former top lawyer for the National Security Agency, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. And Olsen told me yesterday, for him, that is the biggest single concern here, the fear of radicalization at home. And here's why.

MATTHEW OLSEN: Because this feeds directly into this notion that the United States is anti-Muslim or is at war with Islam. And there are individuals here who we are concerned about being recruited and mobilized to violence by ISIS.

KELLY: That was Matt Olsen. And one last point, Steve, Matt Olsen is one of 119 national security officials who signed an open letter yesterday. This is a letter warning that the Trump executive order poses a threat to national security. They are calling for it to be rescinded. If you read this letter, it's remarkable. It really amounts to a collective howl of protest from the national security establishment.

INSKEEP: OK. Mary Louise, thanks for helping us hear a little bit of that howl.

KELLY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

We are hearing from many voices today and in the coming days of course, both those who oppose and those who support the president's executive order on immigration. This debate really is just beginning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.