What would 'extreme vetting' actually do?

President Trump says his temporary travel bans will lead to 'extreme vetting.' The already effective vetting system can be made better, experts say. But it's less clear whether that will make America safer. 

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States at the Pentagon in Washington Friday.

In the coming months, America will likely get a closer look at what President Trump means by “extreme vetting.”

His executive order last week gave the first outline – suspending the refugee program for four months and barring citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for three months. But when that ends, what will have changed?

The Trump administration has given little indication of how extreme vetting will play out in the years ahead. But conservative analysts suggest that America’s vetting of refugees –already considered the most stringent process of its kind in the world – can be tightened further. Agencies can invest more into efforts to root out fake documents or deal even more thoroughly with those who do not have documents. 

But most agree the changes would be incremental, and some suggest that sweeping moves like Mr. Trump’s temporary travel ban actually put Americans at greater risk by appearing to confirm suspicions that America is anti-Muslim.   

“There are always ways to improve these things, but that’s more of an administrative or bureaucratic issue better dealt with from the inside,” says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department policy planning staff official now at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham, N.C. “The larger problem is that these orders, which seem driven by ideology and particular foreign policy aims, will only undermine the stated goal of enhancing national security by distracting and disrupting the whole vetting enterprise.”

The vetting system currently in place is already arduous, experts say. While Trump singled out Syrian refugees, banning them from entering the US until further notice, experts note that not one of the more than 18,000 Syrian refugees who have resettled in the US since the start of the 2011 civil war has committed an act of terror or been implicated in plans to carry out such an attack in the US. 

Making vetting more 'extreme' 

But that doesn’t mean the system couldn’t be improved further, some say. 

“It’s true that refugees already are heavily vetted, but there is more that can be done, or perhaps done differently, and particularly in countries with an ISIS presence,” says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, using the common acronym of the Islamic State.

For example, the Islamic State took control of official passport offices as it swept across parts of Iraq, Syria, and Libya – and so would have had at its fingertips the means of issuing official-looking documents. 

“We know the CIA has worried about that, so part of the heavier vetting may be doubling down on efforts to differentiate between documents generated by ISIS and the real thing,” Mr. Phillips says.

Trump has also criticized the prevailing vetting system for allowing through people who began the process with no documents at all. That’s not unusual for a war-torn country like Syria. But the lack of documents does make the interview process that much more crucial – and that’s where some see potential for delivering an even more reliable system.

“One problem is we often don’t have the intelligence-gathering capacity on the ground to get the refugee vetting corps the information they need to make their determination,” says David Inserra, a homeland security expert also at Heritage.

Another improvement would be to have more direct interviewing between US officials and the applicant in the applicant’s language, he says. 

“That’s not to say the interpreters aren’t doing a good job,” he says, “But you get a better idea of someone’s intentions that can be lost with an interpreter.”  

Whether the Trump administration is considering any of these options is anyone’s guess. 

“You get the sense that they [in the administration] are looking for something that goes above and beyond,” he says, “but I’m not sure it’s something they’ve developed yet.” 

Big risks, small rewards?

There is broad concern, however, that any improvement from fine-tuning will be far outweighed by the damage done by the tone and sweep of the orders issued so far. 

“This plays right into the radical propagandists out there,” says Dr. Jentleson. “It allows them to say, ‘Whatever you may have thought of the US before, under this president there is a war on Islam.’ ”

And beyond turning Muslims on the street generally against the US, such orders could also alienate Muslim allies who provide crucial intelligence in fighting terror.  

“When the communities that surround terrorists view the United States and the West favorably, they are more motivated to help intelligence and law enforcement officials stop attacks,” says Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, writing in Tuesday’s online edition of Foreign Affairs. “And when they view the United States in a negative light, the opposite will happen.”

Even after the 9/11 attacks President Bush was careful not to alienate Muslim countries by declaring war on Islam in general. Since then, efforts at improving relations with Muslim countries have been made specifically to enhance national security.

But those efforts could be seriously set back by Trump’s orders

“[Trump] talked about keeping out terrorists and making Americans safer,” Jentleson says, “but instead this tears to pieces any notion of using soft power to enhance our national security.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

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