The Closing of the American Border
In his new book, Edward Alden goes behind the scenes to tell the story of the Bush administration's struggle to balance security and openness in the wake of the worst ever attack on U.S. soil. Based on extensive interviews with the Bush administration officials charged with securing the border after 9/11, the book shows how an administration that appeared united in the aftermath of the attacks was wracked by internal divisions over how to balance security and openness. We hope you and a guest will join us for a discussion of the book and U.S. immigration policy.
In his new book, Edward Alden goes behind the scenes to tell the story of the Bush administration's struggle to balance security and openness in the wake of the worst ever attack on U.S. soil. Based on extensive interviews with the Bush administration officials charged with securing the border after 9/11, the book shows how an administration that appeared united in the aftermath of the attacks was wracked by internal divisions over how to balance security and openness. We hope you and a guest will join us for a discussion of the book and U.S. immigration policy.
WARREN BASS: (In progress) -- Bass, I'm going to be presiding. I've been instructed, sternly, to order you all -- including you -- to turn off all of your cell phones, BlackBerrys, any other wireless devices -- iPhones, anything with a laser capacity. Don't just put it on vibrator stun, please turn it actually off.
Since you have a current working journalist and a recovering working journalist up here, today's meeting is in fact on-the-record, so anything that you say can and will be used against you.
Let me very briefly just introduce Ted Alden, who is a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, also used to be the Washington bureau chief for The Financial Times and has written the book that we're all here to talk about: "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11", which I have had the pleasure of reading and can warmly recommend to you. It's a terrific read.
It's a fascinating topic and the sort of thing that Ted has really used his journalistic skills to bring not only some human stories, but some real policy dilemmas to light. I warmly recommend it to you. And over the course of the next hour, I think you'll come to understand why.
Let me start by -- Ted and I will bat a few questions around and then we'll turn it over to your questions to drill down a little bit deeper and then go off and mingle and "smoozh" a bit.
Let me start by just sort of going back a little bit to the period before 9/11. I worked on the staff of the 9/11 commission and had the somewhat creepy experience of reading through a series of briefing slides that the NSC counterterrorism staff, led by Richard Clarke, had prepared in January 2001 for the incoming Bush administration team, which warned quite pointedly that al Qaeda had sleeper cells in more than 40 countries and very pointedly underscored that one of those countries was the United States.
But that doesn't seem to have quite worked out that way. Rather than there being large numbers of al Qaeda operatives who had already been snuck inside the country, am I right in thinking that one of the difficulties that Osama bin Laden would have, if he wanted to stage another attack, was the same problem that he had last time where he had to get 19 bad guys inside the country and one of them seems not have made it past the border -- Mohamed al-Kahtani. Is that a fair way of stating it -- that borders are a real problem for bin Laden?
EDWARD ALDEN: I think it is indeed.
And just quickly, I want to thank you, Warren, for doing this. And I just want to thank a couple of people here who have been tremendously helpful to me on my book. Ambassador Chris Arcos is here and people who were on my study group, Terry Lemack (sp) and Theo Gemelas (sp) and others. So I just -- I want to say I got a lot of support from the councils and institution -- from the members of the council for this book and it was tremendously valuable for me. So I just wanted to start off quickly with that.
In answer to your question: The borders indeed are a serious obstacle. And I think that was something that people in the Bush administration seized immediately after 9/11 in thinking about, well, what do we do about the potential of a next wave of terrorists entering the United States and launching some kind of follow-on attack?
There were really two things that came top-of-mind: One was, well, how do we keep people out if they're not here yet already? And so they began to look immediately at the whole range of border and immigration tools to see how these could be used more aggressively to keep out a next wave of hijackers.
And as you mentioned, from your experience on the 9/11 commission, there was an absolute conviction in Justice Department and intelligence agencies that there were sleeper cells already inside the United States. And so how do you go about finding those? Well, this was a really problem, because the FBI basically had no intelligence on these communities. It was an indictment of the FBI that became pretty clear later. But they had no way of determining who in Muslim or Arab communities in the United States they ought to be worried about.
Well, so what do you do? You go out and you begin to question, detain and arrest anyone you can that you think might have some connection to some group that you might be worried about. And the tool that they used -- the only tool they really had was immigration law. I mean, a lot of us don't understand that under American immigration rules, it's pretty easy to arrest someone -- even for minor technical violations -- and hold them for very long periods of time.
So that's really, to a considerable step, where my book starts is the ways in which the administration began to use immigration law as a central weapon in the war on terror.
BASS: And that -- and part of that -- the context for that is that there is -- there's a real sense that failings in immigration law contributed to the attacks; that things went wrong before 9/11 that let bad guys in and it could happen again. Is that right?
ALDEN: Yeah. This was -- I mean, this was indeed a central theory that Ashcroft had. If you read Ashcroft's book -- and unfortunately, I talked to a lot of the senior people in government, but Ashcroft wouldn't agree to talk to me for this book. But if you read his book, he recounts a scenario involving one of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, who was the pilot of United Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville.
Well, Ziad Jarrah on September 10th was pulled over doing 95-miles-an-hour on I-95 just south of the Delaware border. The cop pulled him over, ran the usual wants and warrants, wrote him a big ticket and let him go. Well, there were people in the Justice Department -- in particular an aggressive young lawyer named Chris Koback -- who looked at this and said, well, this was a huge missed opportunity. And in fact, when he and others looked at the record, he discovered that several of the hijackers -- in fact, all of the pilots -- had at one point or another been pulled over for traffic violations at times when they were out-of-status in the United States -- they'd either overstayed tourist visas or they'd come in on tourist visas and become students attending flight school, for instance.
And under Koback's theory, well, if the local police had had access to that information -- if at the fingertips of every local cop, he'd been able to say, this guy is legally in the United States or this guy's not legally in the United States -- that these hijackers might have been arrested, detained, deported.
And so out of that came a whole elaborate notion that really the way -- the best way to fight terrorism domestically and at the borders is to enforce our immigration laws very aggressively. I mean, it turned out in practice that there were a lot of problems with that. But that was the origin of the notion.
BASS: So what's wrong with that paradigm?
ALDEN: The problem with that -- twofold. One, it turned out it didn't work very well in practice. There -- right after 9/11, there was something in the neighborhood of 1,000 Muslims and Arabs living in the United States who were arrested by the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, put in jail and held for months at a time. And in some cases, in fact, one not-so-young man anymore I interviewed, was held for five years in prisons in the United States on immigration violations. Basically, there was nothing that they or their lawyers could do.
I mean, under the post-9/11 conditions that prevailed, if you had somebody on an immigration charge, you could keep them in jail for as long as you wanted. And the FBI went through everything they could find out about these people and the Justice Department's own internal investigation into this subsequently concluded that there were no terrorist links among any of them. There were none that were charged with a terrorist offense. And so it proved to be singularly ineffective.
And that same story I found repeated itself with a lot of these schemes. One of the biggest ones, which is still in place, was called the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System. And Ambassador Arcos, who I mentioned at the outset, was one of the brave ones who actually criticized this publicly from inside the government when he was in DHS. It was another scheme for registering people from Muslim and Arab countries living in the United States or when they were coming to the United States and hoping that through this registration scheme, you might be able to identify people you were worried about.
Again, as a terrorism tool, it was singularly unsuccessful. It identified illegal immigrants, deported a lot of people under it. The problem with it as a terrorism tool is it's very diffuse. When you use immigration law as a counterterrorism tool, mostly what you do is you arrest and deport illegal immigrants. It's not clear that that helps the counterterrorism cause.
The second problem with it -- and the one that my book really focuses on heavily -- is that the country has ended up paying an enormous economic and diplomatic price. Immigration weapons are extremely indiscriminate. And even if they might sometimes be useful in counterterrorism, they end up catching an awful lot of innocent victims. I mean, there's one of them sitting in the audience here today -- Dia Elnay (sp). And Dia is a researcher at NIH up in Rockville, who studies Leishmania, which is a tropical disease that's spread by the bite of sand flies. He came from Sudan here to the United States to study with one of our premier disease researchers. In 2002 he goes off to a conference in Brazil -- having in fact checked with our State Department in advance to make sure he could come back -- and he gets caught up in this whole scheme, which was known as the Visa Condor Scheme, which required detailed security reviews of everybody coming to the United States from Muslim and Arab countries.
Well, he spent six months in Brazil waiting to get his visa to return to the United States, while his wife and his kids are waiting for him in an apartment in Davis, California. It sets his research back two years at least, because all of the sand fly samples that he's used to do his research on die while he's gone. You can multiply that story 1,000-fold.
And so my biggest -- I have two big criticisms: One, I don't think it worked very well. And second, I think our country paid an enormous price for it.
BASS: Let me push you on that as to what the sort of cost-benefit analysis actually works out to be.
On the one side of the ledger -- and if you can statistically give us some sense of the scope of this -- what do we wind up paying, not just in terms of global reputation, but in terms of cost to tourism, to enrollment of foreign students, to attractiveness to immigrants, to lost investment opportunities? And what tangible security benefits do we buy for that? How does the -- give us the math of that tradeoff a little.
ALDEN: I mean, the math on the costs -- you know, the best way you can do this is to sort of look before and after. And the general story for all of those areas is, you know, steady increase up through 2001; B, tourists coming to the United States, investment, whatever you want to look at, falls off a cliff after 2001 and then has been recovering to some extent since then.
I think some of the areas where we've seen the biggest cost: foreign students. There had been, basically since the end of the Second World War, an uninterrupted rise in the number of foreign students coming to the United States. There was a little blip in the early '80s, when you had a very deep recession, but basically an uninterrupted rise. And I think almost everybody who looked at it would agree that the benefits were enormous.
They were enormous to our country, because a lot of them came, did advanced graduate work, stayed. You know, they set up companies. You look at Silicon Valley -- 40 percent of the startups in Silicon Valley are immigrants. You know, they're people who came to study in the United States, went to Silicon Valley, started up companies, employ thousands of people. I mean, there were big economic benefits.
And those who go back home -- there are often economic benefits, because they do business with the United States, but there are diplomatic benefits. They become leaders in their societies and they often leave with very strong, positive feelings about the United States.
If you look at what happened in the United States after 9/11, and at the growth of foreign student enrollment in places like the U.K. and Canada and Australia where a lot of people went, we're down something like 140,000 foreign students from where we ought to be, had the trends pre-9/11 continued. That's a big price to pay there.
The tourism numbers - again, they're recovering, weak dollar helps a lot. Overseas travel to the U.S. is still down about 10 percent from where it was pre-9/11, which is amazing!
BASS: Even with the pathetic dollar.
ALDEN: Amazing given how weak the dollar is, because the United States is a bargain.
Investment's a very hard one, you know, because of investment flows. I mean, this is one small factor. Investment flows are driven by big macro things. But I got the Council on State Governments to send out questions to state trade and investment promotion officials. These are the people from Alabama who go abroad and say, please invest in our state. And they asked them questions about, you know, have they run into visa problems and how serious have these been? And three-quarters of them said, yeah. I mean, we're running into big problems getting visas for potential investors. This is costing us business.
The Commerce Department recently put out a paper saying more or less the same -- harder to measure, but no question that there has been a real impact there.
The question is the balance on the security side. If this were -- I mean, if using immigration laws were the only tool we have, then I might say, well, okay. I mean, 9/11 was horrific. I mean, you remember; I remember. We were all here. We saw what happened. I mean, there are people in this audience who lost family members in 9/11. We don't want a repeat of that.
And so if that were the only tool, I'd say, okay, well, maybe that's a price worth paying. But it isn't the only tool and a lot of my book is about the fact that there were people inside the government who understood some of the tradeoffs, who said, look, we can improve security and keep a lot of the openness that makes this a great and attractive country. And those people lost a lot of battles, unfortunately.
So I don't think it was an either/or. There were better things we could have -- and a number which have been done, that improved security without the same costs.
BASS: Let me ask you about the system we've built since 9/11. Is this a system designed to sort of bring prosperity in or to keep perils out? Where's the emphasis here?
ALDEN: I think that the jury is still out on that. I mean, there are elements of the system we built which I think are quite positive, and I report on them in quite a positive light.
I mean, just, you know, one example -- and there are a lot of things about it that haven't worked very well is the Terrorist Watch List. I mean, there are big problems there. There are people who get identified who shouldn't get identified. There's a real lack of quality control, because any FBI agent can basically stick a name on the list if he wants to and it's awfully hard to get off. But nonetheless, it's a lot better than what we had before 9/11.
I mean, you know this from your research. Before 9/11, the CIA identified two of the hijackers at an al Qaeda in Singapore. Never told the State Department this information; never told the FBI. This information never ends up on the watch list. These people get visas to come to the United States. That is much less likely to happen now and I think the disruption has been fairly minimal.
Another example I would use is the effort to get advanced information on passengers coming into the United States. One of the stories I tell at the outset of the book is about the Customs Service, which didn't get much credit for sort of its role before and after 9/11. But the Customs Service, as result of the drug war, had been for a long time getting information voluntarily from U.S. airlines about their passengers coming on overseas flights. So they could run them through various targeting teams and say, well, actually, this person might be something we want to pull side into secondary, because we think they might be a drug smuggler.
Using that same set of tools they were able, ex post facto, the morning of 9/11, to actually accurately identify the 19 hijackers. They discovered those two names, that's what I'm talking about, and built out from there using their passenger record information. And that was a big lesson to Rob Bonner, who was the commissioner at the time. And so he immediately went out and we have since built a much more elaborate system to make sure that the Department of Homeland Security knows well ahead of time -- who are these people on the planes coming to the United States so we can run some checks and make some judgments? Again, fairly minimal disruption; major improvements to security, I would argue.
The U.S. VISIT system -- at least the entry part. I'm much more skeptical on the exit part. Fingerprinting, their image and things associated with that. But I think generally, you know, it helps make sure that the people who come to the border are who they say they are. It's way of securing identity. And the fact is, we're taking fingerprints from places in Iraq, from Afghanistan, that we have reason to be concerned about. You know, that doesn't necessarily mean you want to keep people out of the country, but if some guys shows up at the border or shows up to get a visa, and you take his fingerprint and you say, well, you know, actually, we pulled the identical fingerprint off of what we think was an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan, you're at least going to want to ask the guy a few questions.
So I think those are all good security improvements that I think have been done with reasonably minimal disruptions compared to the aggressive immigration law enforcement.
BASS: Is the difficulty that this new system is not targeted enough in a way that it finds bad guys; that it relies too much on profiling; that it's just an incredibly blunt instrument? What's the -- or is the difficulty -- or is it a series of difficulties, because the system wasn't designed with some overarching strategic vision, but improvised in a sort of series of panicky and muddled decisions and you sort of build this rickety structure?
ALDEN: I mean, I think both those things are true to some extent. It was improvised, though interestingly, a lot of the elements of the architecture we have now were envisioned before 9/11. Congress had put a number of them in place in the law in 1996 that was never implemented.
So I think there was a vision to some of this. I talk some in the report about the Hart-Rudman commission that my colleague Steve Flynn was part of. And I think the Hart-Rudman Commission had been thinking about these -- how to do these things. So I think there was some thought to it. I think it wasn't totally stitched together, even though parts of it -- parts of it certainly were.
But your first point -- I'd like to say two things about that. One, yes, I think the system is still not sufficiently targeted. A lot of these profiling measures are still in place, particularly the ones that profile people from Arab and Muslim countries. And that, I mean, obviously, that's one factor you want to consider, right? I mean, Islamic terrorists are Islamic, right? You know, that's one of the factors you want to consider. But to routinely put everybody coming from these countries through this onerous series of hoops, which we still do, is incredibly destructive, I think, economically and diplomatically. Those visa numbers I cite, you know, if you look -- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, all the Middle East countries -- the numbers are half of what they were before 2001. We haven't seen them recovered.
BASS: But you're not allergic to profiling in that sense.
ALDEN: Well, no, I am if by what you mean "profiling" is everybody of, you know, a certain nationality or certain religion or certain skin color we're going to put through a series of hurdles.
I'm not opposed to targeting, to trying to use various measures that are as intelligent as you can devise to decide who you're going to be worried about. And that's one legitimate factor, but it's only one. And that's, I think, the difference between profiling and intelligence work.
The second thing is we have what I think is a naive notion about the level of security we're going to buy ourselves. A lot of people in the government at the time, and they're right, talked about risk management. I mean, the fact is, no matter what we do, we are going to be vulnerable to another terrorist attack. And we have to be prepared to deal with that in some way. And the quest for perfect security, I think, ultimately is going to erode our economy and is going to undermine our long-term security.
So in every one of these new measures there has to be a judgment, you know, is the incremental security that we're layering on here worth the cost in terms of the disruption to our economy, the cost to our diplomacy, shutting ourselves off from the world? I think we're closer to having that balance than we were in 2002, 2003 when we were way out of whack, but I still think we've got a long way to go.
BASS: And in fact, bin Laden often talks quite directly -- he gloats about how much economic damage he's caused the United States.
ALDEN: I mean, you know, the fact is, this is the purpose -- I mean, if we want to think about terrorism strategically -- and it's ugly to think about it strategically, but they think about it this way -- their purpose is to cause an overreaction. They want to hurt us through the consequences of the measures we take. They don't have, you know, God forbid, acquiring a nuclear weapon. They don't have the capability to inflict the sort of damage on us that we can inflict on ourselves.
So yeah, I mean, I think this is part of the way terrorists think. And I think if we overreact -- and there was a lot of overreaction in this -- we do a lot more harm to ourselves than they can do to us.
BASS: Is there a certain irony in all of this that some of these excesses, as you describe them in the book, are actually pushed through an administration led by a former governor of Texas, who quite prided himself on wanting to change the tenor of relationships with Mexico, who has pushed for immigration reforms that have been bucked by some more conservative members of his party? Is this the sort of border legacy that George W. Bush thought he would be leaving behind on inauguration day in '01?
ALDEN: Not at all. I mean, I do think it's one of the ironies. It's interesting, you know, I've written a book about the Bush administration in which George Bush is not really the villain. I know that sounds very odd -- (laughter).
BASS: That's no way to sell books! (Laughter.)
ALDEN: No, I realize that -- well, you know.
You know, Bush came into office wanting to do an immigration accord with Mexico. I mean, he believed that there was a historic opportunity there, because as a Texas governor, he felt like he understood Mexico, had a good relationship with Vicente Fox, wanted to negotiate something to deal with the problem of uncontrolled illegal migration, with the horrible deaths that take place in the desert, with the, you know, $3,000 fees that people are paying coyotes to smuggle them across the border.
He wanted to try to deal with all that stuff and they were in the midst of intense negotiations with the Mexicans when 9/11 hits. And suddenly, all that gets thrown aside.
And you know, what I argue in the book is he -- you know, he in a way became a victim of his administration's own rhetoric. I mean, he used the war on the terrorism -- I think he used it electorally, but he certainly believed it was the overriding priority of his administration. And there was just no way to square that with trying to open the borders with Mexico or open the borders with anywhere in the world.
So you know, when he goes back in the second term and says to Congress: We should do this comprehensive immigration reform, it falls flat. I mean, there's one moment I recount in the book where Asa Hutchinson, who's the undersecretary in charge of these issues for DHS, goes out to Temecula in California, which is a border area where there'd been a lot of concern over illegal immigration, and goes on this rightwing talk radio show -- "The John and Ken Show" -- and just gets skewered by this guy over the administration's failure to shut the border and you know, no employer enforcement. Look at all the people they're hiring.
And this guy nails him with a question that Asa can't answer, which is, you know, with all of these people coming over the border, aren't you worried that al Qaeda could be among them? And Hutchinson is just utterly tongue-tied. And the answer should have been, well, actually there's not the slightest bit of evidence that the Southwest border has ever been used for terrorist infiltration. We're far more worried about the northern border. We've been doing things -- we're far more worried about Europe, with its large Muslim populations and the visa waiver program and we're doing things.
But instead, what I think happened is the counterterrorism/immigration agenda morphed together. And if you believe that tough immigration enforcement is the solution to terrorism, well, where's the biggest immigration problem? It's on the southern border.
ALDEN: And you know, we have doubled the number of Border Patrol agents down there since 2000. It's by far the largest law enforcement agency in the country. You know, they post it on the DHS website everyday: 16,893 the last time I looked, but I may have grown since I checked. That was a couple of days ago.
That, I think, has been a real mistake in a lot of ways and it's not the legacy that George Bush wanted to leave. But it will -- it will be his legacy.
BASS: Let me ask you one last question and then I'll turn it over to the audience.
Let us assume that due to some sort of hideous karmic payback for some grotesque sins in a past life, you are appointed secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the next administration. (Laughter.) Let us further do something unlikely and assume that you are crazy enough to take the job: What would be the first three things that you would do to try to fix these issues?
ALDEN: You know, the great thing about being a journalist is -- (laughter).
BASS: Oh, I know! (Laughs.)
ALDEN: We're much better at describing problems in great and copious details than we are at solving them.
You know, it's one of the strange things about my book, and maybe it's a failing on my part, but in a lot of ways, my recommendations are actually fairly modest.
I mean, the first thing I would do is really a rhetorical one. I just think we need to separate as cleanly and clearly as we can immigration enforcement and counterterrorism. I mean, when Secretary Chertoff talks about the wall on the border in the context of terrorism -- and he gave a speech at Harvard last year where he said, you know, before 9/11 we were worried about these problems, but there were a lot of lobbies. There was the border lobby, there was the university lobby that prevented us from putting measures into place that we should have put into place. And he's right about that to a certain extent. He said, now we're facing the same thing again on the southern border with all these landowners who don't want us to build the wall.
Well, I'm sorry, that's not a counterterrorism measure. And if I were secretary of Homeland Security, I wouldn't talk about the two together. They're different problems and we need to separate them.
A second thing that I would do is just to repeal some of the worst measures we've got out there -- particularly dealing with Arab and Muslim countries. This national security entry/exit registration scheme -- and I haven't talked much about it here -- but it's a special layer of extra scrutiny for people from those countries. And you know, the person I start my book out with is a Pakistani doctor who gets caught up in Pakistan for almost a year in 2002. He lives in the United States now, operates on hearts at Columbia Hospital in New York.
Every time he leaves the country, comes back, they pull him aside to secondary. They make him handover his wallet. They take out every piece of paper in the wallet and jot down every number. They take all his calling cards, they jot down every number. They ask him 56 different questions. He sits there for three hours before he gets into the country. That's a heart surgeon, for God's sake! But you know, he's a man in his 30s from Pakistan, so he falls under this profile. That's still in place. That's ludicrous. That's the worst, but there are some others that are not far behind. I would eliminate the worst measures.
And finally, I would try to be somewhat apologetic to the world. And by that, I mean, let's go out there and be a little bit humble. Say, we want you to come to this country. We love you coming to this country! We have had to do things post-9/11 to make our country safer. We were horribly, horribly damaged by those attacks. These are measures that we need to do and we want you to understand. And a lot of that means just the attitude that CBP officers bring to their jobs on the frontline.
I think there are things we could do legislatively. I mean, Congressman Delahunt, who has a subcommittee in Foreign Affairs, he's trying to push through legislation where the U.S. government would offer scholarships to 30,000 foreign students -- poor foreign students, Africa, elsewhere -- to come study in the United States.
BASS: Per year.
ALDEN: Per year. And there are issues there about brain drain and there are some provisions that they would go back to their own countries for a while.
But say, okay, look: We screwed up. You know, we made the United States a much less attractive location for students. We want you and we're going to put our money where our mouth is. And we're going to put up money to get you to come back. So measures like that to try -- not to undue what we've done, but to offset some of the damage.
So are the things that I would take on if I had the unfortunate circumstance of becoming the DHS secretary. (Laughter.)
ALDEN: And I'd be skewered for it, I'm sure.
BASS: That's a lot for us to chew on. Let me turn the rest of the conversation over to the audience. There are folks coming up and down the aisles with microphones. If you can just raise your hands and we'll have a microphone come over to where you go.
When you stand, please state your name and affiliation and try to keep questions brief with a minimum of sermonizing.
And we'll start with you, sir.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Jerry Epstein with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
I appreciate the call to separate issues -- separate immigration from counterterrorism. I've also thought it's important to separate permanent or long-term immigration from temporary visits, because they're very different. But there's legislation that doesn't let you do that.
We have this Provision 214B, which says if you're a foreign student and you want to come to the United States, you have to prove to immigration officers that you will take home what you learn and compete against us, or we won't let you in.
QUESTIONER: Which argues against the argument that we want to have these people stay, which has been a tremendous benefit.
I despair of ever getting a legislative change here because it's coupled directly to this immigration mess. Do you have a suggestion on that?
ALDEN: I agree with you. I think it should be changed. I think it's -- it bears no resemblance to the way our immigration system operates now. I mean, we have this image that there are temporary visitors and there are permanent immigrants, and the permanent immigrant is someone, you know, who applies to the embassy abroad, waits in line for however long that line takes, and then comes to the United States to work.
In fact, almost all of the permanent immigrants here come here on temporary work visas and they work here for significant periods of time on temporary visas, and while they're here try to convert to permanent status -- only it's gotten harder and harder and harder. So the whole division is utterly artificial.
On the student side, I absolutely -- I absolutely agree with you. I don't think it makes any sense because the fact is we want a lot of them to stay. I mean, there are issues here. You know, we don't want to raid poorer countries of all their best minds, and it's good for us if some of them go back. It serves our diplomatic ends. So it's not an either-or. But to make that a sort of absolute barrier to entry, I agree with you. I don't think that's a standard that makes sense.
But the likelihood of being able to deal with it legislatively under the current climate -- I'm -- I don't think the odds are very good.
BASS: Fred Tipson at the back.
QUESTIONER: Thanks, Warren. Fred Tipson with UNDP here in Washington.
Ted, what are the multilateral options that -- I haven't read your book, but I assume there are some angles in there. What are we missing as far as what we need to do with others as opposed to trying to do it all ourselves? And without being unrealistic about the possibilities, you know, what angles would you want to pursue with other countries?
ALDEN: There's a lot that can be done bilaterally, and there's a lot that has been done bilaterally. I think some of the best accomplishments post-9/11 have been closer cooperation in intelligence and police work with foreign governments. I mean, there are multilateral dimensions -- Interpol being an example of that. I think on the movement of goods side, you know, the World Customs Organization and others have got engaged in trying to improve security for the movement of goods. I don't deal with that a lot in this book -- I talk about it some because some of the same ideas have been used when it comes to the movement of people.
To a considerable extent, however, I think a lot of this has to be dealt with bilaterally. I mean, immigration is a very, very difficult issue. Ute Hennig, my former boss here who deals with trade issues, knows that, you know, there have been efforts by the Indians and others to put some of this stuff on the table in the World Trade Organization -- temporary movement of skilled personnel. The United States doesn't want to deal with it at all, and a lot of other countries are pretty skittish, too.
So I am more optimistic about making progress on these issues bilaterally than I am multilaterally. I think right now for a variety of reasons they're just too hard for most of the multilateral system to deal with.
BASS: Up front here.
QUESTIONER: I think --
BASS: Your name, sir?
QUESTIONER: Sorry? Fred Ikle, Center -- CSIS.
I think -- you're Warren Bass?
BASS: I am.
QUESTIONER: -- summarized it best: "It's a blunt instrument, but it could be improved. It shouldn't be thrown away."
On student visas -- yes, it's desirable, but you also have to keep in mind that we taught many students how to build nuclear weapons. And I served in the Bremer Commission -- antiterrorism commission. We tried to rectify that, and it was very difficult to get universities to do anything about it.
Keep in mind that the United Kingdom, very open to Pakistanis coming in and out and in and out, and you had several terrorist acts. We have had zero -- zero terrorist acts since 9/11. Some of that ought to be credited to this blunt instrument. Now, I think we ought to move towards improving it, but not throwing it away.
ALDEN: I would partially agree with you. I think if you look at the U.K. attacks, they have actually come from -- often from second-generation immigrants -- people born in the United Kingdom. And I think the story there is that the United States -- partly as a result of the way we do immigration -- there's some things -- you know, I'm critical here, but there's some things we do very well in terms of immigration. And one is that we've done a very good job of integrating and assimilating immigrant groups into our society. We've been much more effective at that than the Europeans have, partly because we don't have big guest worker programs, which I have worries about for that reason. And so I think one of the reasons we've been spared what the U.K. has suffered is that we don't have the homegrown radicalism problem that Europe has.
Yes, I think -- you know, I do -- and it's difficult to prove anything definitively in this. I think some of the border toughening has made it harder for people to get in, and that may well have spared us. And so it's always -- it's always a question of balance here, and it's never clear exactly where you want to draw the line.
The nuclear stuff was a big concern of people in the government -- students, you know, studying nuclear and biological weaponry and other things was a big concern of the government, and I think that's a legitimate thing for the government to be worried about. It has to be targeted. Yes, there was resistance from the universities. So -- I mean, universities have not always been on the right side of these issues, but, you know, the universities also do a lot of very, very good things for this country. You know, you want to ask what's our most impressive competitive institutions? Probably our universities. You know, any reasonable list of the best universities in the world, the Americans have got, you know, 40 out of the top 50, or 75 out of the top 100. That's something that is very precious to this country that we ought to nurture.
QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt. I have a question that's related to the one posed by Fred Ikle. The CIA has stated in public that we have succeeded in thwarting a significant number of planned attacks on American soil. Do you -- so far as you know, does stepped up enforcement of immigration laws and regulations have any relationship to that success?
ALDEN: I know of -- I mean, this are difficult ones to answer because there may be things to which people in the intelligence community and the FBI are privy to that they haven't told me that I know nothing about. But my experience as a journalist for many years is when things work, government tends to talk about it. (Laughter.) You know, they like to brag about things that have gone well. And I have not heard cases -- and the incidents you refer to where, you know, various domestic plots have been uncovered where they've said, you know, "Yes, our ability to detain this person under immigration law and what they revealed under questioning was crucial to our resolution of this particular event."
And I'm open to people who tell me, "Well, you've missed this case or that case." I haven't learned of any cases. And the 9/11 commission -- you know, admittedly it goes back a while -- but, you know, there was an effort to kind of look into this, and the conclusion was that, well, yeah -- I mean, immigration enforcement probably made it somewhat tougher for al Qaeda to get in the United States, but there wasn't any evidence that the particular schemes I talked about had been effective in identifying and stopping terrorists. So that's the best answer I can give you.
BASS: And I'll add one thing that the 9/11 commission did find was during the millennium scare in December '99 when the Clinton administration is on quite high alert and is concerned about domestic attacks, an alert Customs agent in Washington State manages to catch an Algerian-born jihadist named Ahmed Ressam who's coming over the border. But there's -- it's a complicated story as to whether federal involvement had anything to do with that. He was the last guy off the ferry, he looked nervous, his trunk was full of bomb-making equipment. (Laughter.) Just minor things.
ALDEN: They thought it was drugs, right?
ALDEN: I mean, the evidence is they didn't know what they'd caught.
ALDEN: So yeah, you're right. It's hard to say whether the heightened enforcement had something to do with it. But they didn't think they'd caught a jihadist. They thought they'd caught a drug runner. So --
Up front here.
QUESTIONER: Peter Spiegel with The Los Angeles Times. Being a currently practicing journalist and therefore by definition incredibly superficial, the thing I liked most about the book was the compelling characters, and I think they really drove the narrative. And the one guy who I found myself rooting for beyond expectations was Tom Ridge. (Laughter.) He sort of leaves Washington as the most disgraced member of the Bush administration, and I can't believe I put down the book saying, "Wow, Tom Ridge was right." I wonder if you could talk a bit about Tom Ridge and whether you were trying to rehabilitate his -- him in your book.
ALDEN: You know, it's funny because I went into this book with essentially no preconception of Tom Ridge, and the extent that I had a preconception, it was a negative one caused by the stories of his mismanagement. I was really struck by the interviews I did with everybody who worked for him who said he was fabulous, that he was an impressive leader in all sorts of different ways.
Now, Ridge had his failings. I think you could say that maybe he wasn't the right guy for the time, in that he was -- he's a consensus leader. He's not a guy -- he wasn't a turf war -- and he'll admit this -- he'll say, "Look, I didn't go out to claim a lot of turf for DHS or when I was at the White House to try to claim a lot of turf." And he lost a lot of battles to the Justice Department.
But there were two things that really impressed me about Ridge: One, I think he got the big picture right. He was -- he's a border state governor, if I could just -- from Pennsylvania, had a lot of experience with the Canadians. He thought about the economy a lot. He realized from day one that the challenge of homeland security was going to be to try to balance and improve security and economic openness, and there were a lot of people in government who didn't get this. Tom Ridge got that.
And you know, the second thing I just like about him is I think that he was reasonable in his aspirations. Government often overreaches tremendously, and I think it's partly because of the way everybody inside the government responds to public pressure. And after 9/11, I can only imagine what it was like to be in those positions -- you know, the cascade of demands coming down on you to fix everything that was wrong. Ridge, at some level, knew it was going to be an incremental task and that it was extraordinarily difficult to put in place the kind of things we were talking about. And I like that modesty. I wish more of our senior government officials had that because I think hubris is very dangerous and there are too many people at the senior levels of our government who believe their own press releases. (Laughter.)
BASS: In the back, right there.
QUESTIONER: Janice Trey (sp) with Sound of Hope Radio. Do you think a new category of visa that's targeted only for the highly skilled workers but on a long-term basis -- longer term than the current H-1 -- will help the U.S. economy by attracting and retaining highly skilled workers because they pay taxes, help the economy, they won't add to welfare burdens, and they are highly skilled that they could have immigrated to other countries?
ALDEN: Yeah, I think it could. And I don't know enough about all the ins and outs of the H-1B scheme; there are problems with it. But if you look at what other countries are doing -- I mean, the Canadian government right now -- they have such a skill shortage in Canada that if you're in the United States on an H-1B visa and you can't convert to a green card -- you've been waiting in line -- and you're willing to move to Alberta, you can go tomorrow. They'll take you like that -- (laughter) -- basically sight-unseen. The Europeans are introducing what they call a blue card scheme, which is a much more aggressive effort to go after skilled workers.
The United States had this game more or less to itself for a long, long time, and other countries are catching on, so we need to I think revamp that whole category. I don't know whether expanded H-1Bs are the way to go or not. The council has set up a task force on immigration policy that I'm working on. It's a group of senior members thinking about these kinds of questions. That's one of the issues that we're grappling with. So it's an important question, but I don't have a perfect answer for you.
BASS: Sure. In the back there?
QUESTIONER: Hi. (Off mike) -- I can sympathize with many of the things you've talked about from working on these issues at Ways and Means trade council, and early on some of the G8 crime and terrorism negotiations and pushing back on some of the more knee-jerk law enforcement things. But I think, as other people have raised here, there is a difficult balancing act here on these. Is there anything institutionally that you would see in terms of a reform to kind of weight that cost-benefit analysis before it gets to the DC or the PC or Customs makes a decision that might have these kind of ramifications that you talk about?
ALDEN: You mean in terms of a sort of reform of government structures?
QUESTIONER: Right, or a weighing or a systematic way of looking at these, to weigh the costs and the tradeoffs, which can be very complex.
ALDEN: Well, I'm not a big believer in institutional reorganization. I think it tends to cause more problems than it solves, and I think the creation of DHS is a pretty good example of that.
But I do think there are things that can be done inside the government. I mean, I'd love -- I'd love to see some portion of the government in the White House or elsewhere systematically try to measure these things -- you know, actually see what kind of hard numbers we can put on some of the costs and benefits of these various measures. You see this kind of things in -- the White House does it for new regulations. We haven't seen it done for a lot of homeland security measures. We've just considered that that's a whole kind of separate realm that we don't need to look at that way.
So I'm reluctant to do an institutional redesign, and I'm not sure I'm the guy to tell you how to do it even if it were the right thing to do. But I do think that there could be ways to institutionalize thinking about these questions that we aren't doing right now.
BASS: Mr. Arcos, right at the back there.
QUESTIONER: Cris Arcos. I was impressed by this point that you made, Ted, about bilateral solutions to the immigration issue. And I may have told you this before, but I wanted to get your reaction now, publicly -- (laughter) -- in terms of -- we -- at one point when I joined Homeland Security and Stewart Verdery and Randy Beardsworth and many others were there -- I was pulled aside and asked by the -- my honcho, chief, Tom Ridge, and he says, "I know immigration is not you're issue; you're international. But tell me, how do we deal with this issue?"
And I said, "The Mexicans had actually" -- and I wrote this down -- I said, "The Mexicans actually gave us a vehicle when they said they wanted the whole enchilada on this immigration issue." They put it in bilateral terms -- that we would negotiate an immigration pact. But unfortunately when we took it to the highest levels, it was rejected. First of all, the State Department said it did not do immigration. It was a reaction, quite frankly. It was like a crucifix in front of Dracula. (Laughter.) That's what it was. And the White House didn't want to hear about it because it's a prerogative of Congress. And what we were proposing was a fast-track negotiation with the Mexicans primarily -- this is what I came up with. And Governor Ridge tried, and it didn't -- there was no resonance on that.
But I would ask you, when you say bilaterally, what do you mean by that?
ALDEN: You've laid out very effectively a lot of the difficulties. I think that some sort of bilateral negotiation with Mexico is absolutely crucial on this issue. But I do not want to underestimate the difficulties. I mean, one of the comments I heard repeatedly -- I would ask people, "Well, why are we fortifying the Mexican border so heavily when, from a terrorism perspective, the Canadian border is actually a greater concern?" And the answer is, "Well, we can work with the Canadians. We trust the Canadians. We can cooperate with the Canadians. We don't trust the Mexicans. We don't know how to work with them. The whole system is too corrupt, and the police system, the border system is too corrupt." And that is a real problem.
And I think some of that is Mexico's problem; some of it is our problem. The fact is, one of the difficulties when you build border fortifications, be it against drugs or people, is you create an enormous crime problem. I mean, we have created a huge lucrative business in human smuggling on the southern border. You know, you go back to the 1980s when people more or less could walk across the border -- there were a lot of Mexicans who would come over; they would work for a few months in Arizona or California, they'd go home. They could do it. You can't do that anymore. You want to get across the border from Mexico into the United States, you've got to pay a coyote $2,000 or $3,000. You've created an enormous organized crime problem on the southern border. And the Mexicans are basically in civil war with the drug gangs on the border now.
Any solution to the immigration problem is going to have to engage both governments. The Mexicans are going to have to take responsibility and the Americans are going to have to take responsibility. I do not want to underestimate the difficulties of that. Obviously politically it's a huge difficulty from this end. I don't know whether we can do that again. But even if there were a lot of political good will on both sides, making it work is tremendously difficult. I'm not absolutely persuaded that even absent 9/11 those negotiations would have worked. I mean, there are people who know a lot more about Mexico than I do who think that the negotiations might have failed anyway. So -- I think they had a chance, maybe, but it's not clear they would have worked.
BASS: Mike Hurley, there.
QUESTIONER: Mike Hurley, Nuclear Threat Initiative. The example you site of the heart surgeon who was sort of hassled on entry is very regrettable, and there are many other examples of similar kinds of things. But then one thinks of Zawahiri being a physician, and then I remember I think a couple of the guys involved in the operation in the Glasgow airports were physicians I think or medically trained. And so it sort of seems that, you know, fanaticism isn't confined to just one profession. And so that's just a comment I make.
And secondly, there have been a lot of press reports lately about al Qaeda recruiting Westerners more and more and that this is a real deep concern, that American counterterrorism officials have these two Germans that were on trial in Germany for their operation. And I'm just wondering whether, you know, immigration law would be helpful trying to keep such people out or not.
And I guess lastly, just sort of wondering whether in the event -- if there's another attack on the homeland or when there's another attack on the homeland, would you envision a real retrenchment -- even sort of more draconian measures, or how would you see things sort of playing out?
ALDEN: This is a great question because it gets exactly at the distinction Warren was talking about between profiling and intelligence-driven efforts. Yeah, I mean, there were -- if you look at al Qaeda terrorists, they're not confined to a particular social class. In fact they're often -- have been highly educated, and there's nothing that says that a Pakistani doctor couldn't be a suicide bomber or an al Qaeda operative. Absolutely.
But do you then conclude from that that therefore every doctor who comes into the United States or every Pakistani doctor who comes in the United States -- we're automatically going to put him through a grueling kind of search procedure? In the case of the doctor I was writing about, he'd lived in the United States for 11 years already. He was a known entity here. And the reason he was delayed was not because they had anything particular on him but -- the whole system became extraordinarily backlogged because we were asking the FBI to do background checks on everybody who fit this profile, and I don't think that's a very effective measure.
Your example of al Qaeda recruiting Westerners -- well, does that mean that every German who comes in the United States right now, we start pulling them aside into secondary inspection? We start doing FBI background searches on them before we let them in? I don't think that makes a lot of sense, and it wouldn't make the Germans very happy.
So you get back to the question of, well, what do you do about this? Well, you work closely with foreign governments -- it's easier with the Germans than it is with the Pakistanis -- to try to get as much information as you possibly can and get it to the right places. We have -- the United States is sharing names now with foreign governments, and you know, if German police, German intelligence get wind of things and share it with the United States, these people may end up on our watch lists. We may have a way to keep them out. It's not foolproof, but it seems to me it's an awful lot better and far less damaging than just searching, scrutinizing everybody who fits a certain profile.
Your last question, if there's another attack -- yeah, I think it gets a lot worse. I mean, I think the response -- I mean, you saw it at the time. You know, one of the -- we haven't talked about it, but my favorite chapter in the book is chapter five, which is about the State Department and Mary Ryan. It's a little-known piece of trivia. There's only one person in the United States government fired as a result of 9/11, and she was the assistant secretary in the State Department in charge of consular affairs -- a woman named Mary Ryan. And she became the scapegoat for the fact that State Department officials gave visas to the hijackers, and a message went out through everybody in the State Department: "Don't ever let this happen again. Look what happened to Mary Ryan."
Well, if this happens again, multiply that numerous times. So yeah, I think if it happens again we're going to do a lot more even than we did this time, and I think it will be a very bad thing for this country. I think we'll lose as a result of that.
BASS: Let's -- back row there.
QUESTIONER: Great. Hi. Thank you. My name is Mercedes Fitchett. I wanted to follow up on Steve's question concerning institutions, systems and processes because there is a better way for this Pakistani doctor to come into America. And I'm hoping that you could touch upon the systems and programs we have in place because it really comes down to databases, data integrity, information sharing. And could you speak to the improvements or the weaknesses, or what is it that we could be doing in that area, because we certainly could be doing things better now? Thank you.
ALDEN: The schemes that I like the most are the ones that allow for some kind of target. You know, I mentioned the advanced passenger information schemes, the reservation data, where we get some useful information on passengers coming into the country. The terrorist watch lists, I think, despite the problems of too many names on them, are a valuable kind of targeting tool. I think fingerprints done in certain ways can be a valuable kind of targeting tool.
The biggest concern on these is really a privacy concern, and one of the things that I find interesting about all of this is that there hasn't been more of a backlash on the privacy side. And I think part of that is because mostly this affects non-U.S. citizens. Sometimes it affects U.S. citizens -- you know, if you get your laptop searched at the border -- but mostly it affects non-U.S. citizens coming into the United States. And the basic deal we make with anybody who wants to come here -- and any country does that -- is that you have very little in the way of privacy protections at the border. We're allowed to scrutinize you pretty thoroughly to decide whether we want you into the country, and that's a real advantage that we have at the border in terms of gathering this kind of information that we don't have inside the country.
So I would continue to build and refine and make those initiatives better. Where I'm less certain about the data-driven stuff is again when we get into immigration control. I mean, we're in the first stages of trying to build an exit system to accompany the entry system we've built. We now -- everybody comes into the country now that gets fingerprinted; we determine that they are who they say they are; we know that they've come in the country. We don't have a foolproof way -- let me say, we do that at the airports. We do it less well at the land borders. We don't have a foolproof way of knowing when they've left the country. I mean, we can do it to some extent through airline records, but we don't have a foolproof way. But we are moving down that road. I think there's the potential for a huge amount of disruption associated with that. Maybe we can figure it out technically. The gains seem to me to be pretty modest. You know, there might be an investigative gain to be able to say for sure, yeah, this guy came in on x date and he left on y date. I think that's one we really need to think carefully about. I mean, if we can do it with minimal disruption, the way the entry portion has been done so far, I would probably support it. If it creates massive disruption then I would say the cost is too high.
And we're dealing with that with a lot of these measures now that you have to -- and again, this was a standard that Cris (sp), you laid out in that article you wrote when you were critical of (NSEERS ?). You have to think about, is the added security worth the amount of disruption and hassle it costs? Is it proportionate? And that's the question we need to be asking ourselves, and I don't think DHS is asking itself a lot that question these days. We're just kind of continuing to layer on.
BASS: We have time for just one really quick question. Let me take --
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BASS: Here's a microphone. Can you stand up? The microphone's coming right over.
QUESTIONER: Sidney Weintraub, CSIS.
ALDEN: Thanks for coming.
QUESTIONER: You've said twice now that Canada is a more -- probably entry from Canada is more likely than entry from Mexico. Tell me why.
BASS: Yes. And I grew up in Toronto, so answer carefully. (Laughter.)
ALDEN: Well, and I grew up in Vancouver.
ALDEN: So we're --
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
ALDEN: Well, yeah. (Laughter.)
Well, it's actually -- you know, it's partly because I grew up around some of these stories. I mean, one of my best friends at The Vancouver Sun when I worked there was the reporter who uncovered everything about the Air India bombing, which was financed by Sikh radicals from a church based in Vancouver. There's a lot of that in Canada. Canada is a country that's very open and welcome to immigrants, and its ethos is slightly different. They have -- the ethos is multicultural. You want people to come there and retain their identities as much as they can.
There are a lot of wonderful things about that, and I love Toronto. It's one of my favorite cities in the world, but it is a place that it's easy for radicals to hide. And there are a lot of examples of this. I mean, there are a lot of terrorist organizations around the world that get a lot of money from Canada, a lot of support from Canada. Almost every significant terrorist group has some sort of support element inside Canada.
So the Canadian government deals with this often quite effectively. I think in the wake of Ressam they got a lot more serious about it. They certainly weren't very serious prior to Ressam.
There's very little evidence of those same groups being operational in Mexico. You know, you hear talk about Hezbollah -- there are Lebanese communities on the border. You talk about Hezbollah maybe having links in Mexico. That's the closest I've come to it, but in Canada they're all there. So I think the Canadian government deals with it effectively; I think we can cooperate with them, but there are real issues in Canada that don't exist in Mexico.
Was that careful enough for you? (Laughter.)
BASS: On that sort of "Blame Canada" note -- (laughter) -- let me remind you all that this session was indeed on the record. I am also -- I have also been charged to remind you that a podcast with more of discussion of Ted is available on the council's website at cfr.org.
I hope that you will all join us in sticking around for drinks and some munchies and an opportunity to buy many, many copies of this terrific book. (Laughter.)
Let me thank you for all coming. And thank Ted. (Applause.)
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THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.
As the 113th U.S. Congress considers an overhaul of the country's immigration system, Task Force members Richard Land, Eliseo Medina, and project director Edward Alden discuss U.S. policy options and political prospects for comprehensive change.
CFR Senior Fellows Edward Alden and Shannon K. O'Neil discuss border security and U.S. immigration policy.
CFR Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow Edward Alden and CFR Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies Shannon O'Neil talk to CFR.org Editor Robert McMahon about border security and U.S. immigration policy.