House Homeland Security chairman talks Jade Helm, Syria, Islamic State

'Our military is not a threat,' Rep. Michael McCaul told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast, seeking to allay concerns over upcoming military training exercises.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas on Thursday pushed back against the notion that US military training exercises in Texas planned for this summer pose any danger to US citizens.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State National Guard to monitor the activities of active duty US service members, including Special Operations Forces, taking part in Operation Jade Helm 15, a training exercise slated to happen across several states, including Texas, this summer.

“Our US military is not a threat,” Representative McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Thursday morning.

At the same time, however, McCaul expressed concern about whether the US government should take in additional Syrian refugees, as European allies have done in the wake of a war that has taken more than 200,000 lives, because they might create some sort of jihadist pipeline.

European counterparts are “absorbing thousands of Syrian refugees on a monthly basis.” But the US is unable to “properly vet them to know who they are, where they came from – to know what threat they pose,” he said, arguing that welcoming Syrian refugees to America could amount to “bringing in potential terrorists.” 

“I’m not trying to be alarmist about it,” McCaul said, adding that he has visited Syrian refugee camps. 

“I’ve seen what it looks like – there are a lot of mothers and children,” he said. “But there are a lot of males that could conduct terrorist” activities,” he added. “I think bringing them in is a serious mistake.”

The United States has offered safe haven to roughly 700 Syrians. And while Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the US has the biometric technology to vet more refugees, McCaul says he is not so sure about this, and that the FBI has told him otherwise.

“Until we have the biometrics and the databases,” he said, “I don’t think that’s what the American people want.” 

That’s in large part because Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is interested in using social media sites like Twitter to try to reach out to – and in the process radicalize – Americans, McCaul says. 

This might include convincing them to carry out an attack on the US homeland – against a US military installation, say.

That said, the Islamic State is not “some monolithic giant,” he added. If the US “came up with an aggressive strategy” to combat them, then the US military can defeat them “in short order.” 

This might include more forward operating bases near the Syrian border and US Special Operations forces, McCaul has said.

Still, he acknowledges the complexity of the war. There are members of the Islamic State who are former Baathist party members from the Saddam Hussein era, he said, adding that many former Bush administration officials agree that the decision to disband the Iraqi military and to de-Baathify the Iraqi government in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq was a “huge mistake.”

It was a mistake, McCaul notes, that helped to swell the ranks of the Islamic State with former Iraqi officials, many of whom have formed the group’s core leadership.

While many Americans have become decidedly disengaged from the current US wars, that could change with “one big attack,” he added. 

The question of how the US should move forward in Syria will be “a great national debate” during the upcoming presidential elections, McCaul predicted. 

“How engaged are we going to be over there?”

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