A Border Wall to Stop Terrorists? Experts Say That Makes Little Sense

A migrant near the border fence between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego. President Trump has said there is a national security crisis at the border.

WASHINGTON — President Trump has repeatedly warned that terrorists are pouring into the United States from Mexico, in one of his central justifications for building a border wall.

But his own government’s assessments conclude that Mr. Trump has seriously overstated the threat. And counterterrorism officials and experts said there had never been a case of a known terrorist sneaking into the country through open areas of the southwest border.

Despite the administration’s focus on security threats at the border, a White House strategy document sent to Congress last month outlining steps needed to monitor and intercept terrorists included no reference to the need for construction of barriers, fences or walls. Separately, an intelligence analysis concluded that cyberattacks are the top threat to the United States — not terrorists at the border.

“There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States,” Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said on Tuesday. “It simply isn’t true.”

In a rare prime-time address to the nation, broadcast at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Trump was expected to describe a national security crisis brewing at the Mexican border. It was his opportunity to directly defend his demands for $5.7 billion for a border wall — funding that congressional Democrats have refused to provide, fueling the 18-day government shutdown.

Many Latin American countries have border law enforcement gaps — limited law enforcement capabilities and established smuggling routes — that extremists could exploit to harm the United States, according to the State Department’s latest Country Reports on Terrorism.

But, the report concluded, that has not happened.

“These vulnerabilities offer opportunities to foreign terrorist groups, but there have been no cases of terrorist groups exploiting these gaps to move operations through the region,” the report said.

The latest ranking of urgent national security vulnerabilities, compiled annually by American intelligence agencies, puts the terrorist threat from the southwest border low on the list and then mentions it in a discussion of how “worldwide production of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is at record levels.”

Over the last several days, White House and Department of Homeland Security officials have relentlessly pushed the case that the situation at the border is both a national security crisis and a humanitarian one.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Sunday that “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally,” and added that the “most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”

A day later, Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, called those comments “an unfortunate misstatement.”

At the same time, in a memo sent to journalists late Monday, Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, cited “more than 3,000 ‘special-interest aliens’ — individuals with suspicious travel patterns” who posed a potential national security risk.

“The threat is real,” she wrote in a series of tweets on Monday afternoon. “The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years. The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.”

Former national security officials and analysts have pushed back — especially on the notion that terrorism suspects or their sympathizers use the southwest border as a door to the United States.

“That 4,000 number was bull,” said W. Ralph Basham, who served as commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection from 2006 to 2009, during the Bush administration.

“The idea that you have that many terrorists flooding across the border when you have all of these dedicated agents focused on stopping that kind of activity is ridiculous,” Mr. Basham said.

A senior American counterterrorism official said on Tuesday night that an annual average of three known or suspected terrorists — all of whom were on watch lists — had tried to enter the United States at a legal border crossing or entry point over the last several years, and had been denied.

A 22-page National Strategy to Combat Terrorism Travel, overseen by the staff of the National Security Council and under Mr. Trump’s signature, cited a broad commitment to making it “more difficult for terrorists to cross U.S. borders.”

Sent to Congress on Dec. 21, the day before the government shutdown began, the document urged data sharing and improved coordination with foreign partners to identify terrorists before they travel. It did not urge the construction of a border wall.

The only explicit reference to “border security” in the document, which was obtained on Tuesday by The New York Times, is a listing of executive orders that Mr. Trump has already signed. It also included strategies to “interdict” potential terrorists with plans to “maintain the equipment and technology” necessary to stop bad actors and share real-time information between law enforcement agencies.

The 2018 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence ranked cyberattacks against utilities, communications systems and markets as the top threat to the United States. Published annually by American intelligence agencies, the ranking has not changed much over the past five years.

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Cyberconflict: Why the Worst Is Yet to Come

Despite the devastation cyberweapons have caused around the world over the last decade, they are still in their infancy. David E. Sanger, a New York Times national security correspondent, explains why the threat is growing.

Cyberconflict right now, at this very moment, is like this airplane. It was the first military airplane that was ever built — back in 1909. But in just a few decades, planes would be capable of destroying entire cities. Right, so when we talk about cyberweapons, we’re still basically in 1909. “That’s why you have to have some humility about what’s going to happen in the world of cyberconflict.” David, here, is a national security correspondent for The Times, and he’s written a book about cyberconflict. It seems like we’re hearing more and more — “One of the worst cyberattacks ever.” — about state-sponsored cyberattacks. “Occasionally, there are going to be breaches like this.” “And this weapon will not be put back into the box.” “We have more to lose than any other nation on earth.” So, we really wanted to find out just how bad things are. And how bad they could get. Should we be afraid? “Yes, you should be afraid, but not for the reason you think — not because somebody is going to come in and turn off all the power between Boston and Washington. You should be worried about the far more subtle uses of cyber.” For example, not an overt attack on U.S. troops, but instead, maybe hacking into military health records and switching around people’s blood types. It still causes havoc. “Think terrorism —” “About a third of the building has been blown away.” “— instead of full-scale war.” “Why do you call it the perfect weapon?” “Because it’s deniable. If you can’t figure out right away where the attack’s coming from, you can’t really retaliate.” Plus, you can fine-tune the strength of cyberattacks. You can make them just strong enough to do real damage, but not so strong that they trigger a military response. “It’s cheap compared to, say, nuclear weapons. You just need some twenty-somethings who are good at programming, a little bit of stolen code and maybe some Red Bull just to keep them awake during the night.” That’s why cyberweapons have only just begun to spread. “And cyber is the perfect weapon for a country that’s broke.” “And we can confirm that North Korea engaged in this attack.” Take that time North Korea hacked into Sony — “Because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco.” What if they didn’t have cyberweapons? “Maybe they would have landed some commandos at Long Beach, called an Uber, stuck some dynamite underneath the Sony computer center and run like hell.” So really, North Korea’s only option was to use cyberweapons. But it wouldn’t be so easy for the U.S. to hit North Korea’s cybernetworks. “They have fewer IP addresses — Internet Protocol addresses — in North Korea, than you have on any given block of New York City.” Still, we wanted to know who’s the best at cyberconflict. “Russia, China, Iran, they use it regularly to advance their political agendas. The Russians to disrupt, the Chinese frequently to steal information, the Iranians to show that they can reach the United States.” “How good or bad is the U.S. at this stuff?” “Among the very best at cyberoffense. The problem is that while we’re good at offense, we’re the most vulnerable in the defensive world because we’ve got so many networks that form such a big target. The United States has 6,200 cybersoldiers.” “Are these people sitting in military fatigues behind a computer?” “They are sitting in military fatigues behind a computer. But the Russian hackers, or the Chinese hackers, may not be in uniform. They may be in blue jeans. They are probably sitting at the beach somewhere — someplace that’s got a really good internet connection.” All this cyberconflict really kicked off in 2008. Right, that’s when the U.S. and Israel attacked Iranian nuclear facilities. “It was the most sophisticated use of cyber by one state against another, and it opened up the Pandora’s box.” And remember — it’s still only the beginning. “We haven’t seen a full-blown war, and we don’t know what one looks like.” “What’s the most challenging part about covering this beat?” “The hardest part about covering the state use of cyber, is the enormous secrecy that the U.S. government wraps around it. But we’ve hit the point where the secrecy has actually begun to impede our ability to deter attacks. Because others don’t understand what we can do to them, and what we’re willing to do to them. In other words, we’re not setting any red lines out there.”

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Despite the devastation cyberweapons have caused around the world over the last decade, they are still in their infancy. David E. Sanger, a New York Times national security correspondent, explains why the threat is growing.CreditCredit...Illustration by Aaron Byrd

But the government shutdown has furloughed nearly half of the work force of the Department of Homeland Security’s new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is advertised as the first line of defense against network attacks. Mr. Trump has also dismantled the office of the White House cybersecurity coordinator, the job that was supposed to sew together offense and defense against the daily barrage of cyberattacks.

After cyberattacks, the top threats to the United States include the rise of smaller, more deadly nuclear and biological weapons; terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda; and Russian-style influence campaigns and threats to the United States’ space assets.

Counterterrorism officials have long discounted the threat of Islamic State or Qaeda terrorists entering through the southwest border. In some cases, the opposite has happened, said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism, citing homegrown American extremists who crossed into Mexico to avoid being detected on no-fly lists.

Officials included the case of Jason Ludke of Milwaukee, who pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. He and a co-conspirator were headed to the border in Texas, with plans to join the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, when they were arrested.

According to the plea agreement, Mr. Ludke had planned to work under the Islamic State’s direction and control and recorded a video of himself pledging his allegiance to the terrorist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Mr. Ludke told an undercover F.B.I. agent that he had training in jujitsu and computers, which he believed would benefit the Islamic State.

Even as Mr. Trump has lobbied for the wall, he has also pressed the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to immediately tighten security on the border.

On Dec. 27, homeland security officials asked for assistance that the Pentagon later estimated would require 3,000 additional military personnel to be sent to the border, according to memos exchanged by the two departments over the last two weeks. The force could include a combination of National Guard troops, active-duty military personnel and volunteers, but that was not made clear in the documents, officials said. It remains an issue of hot debate inside the Pentagon.

The Homeland Security Department also requested 146 mobile surveillance vehicles to be sent to four border states, along with enough personnel and material to install 150 additional miles of barbed concertina wire. The homeland security memo also again asked Defense Department officials to provide additional aviation support to monitor and control the flow of immigrants.

The Pentagon has not yet approved the request. It included guidelines for Ms. Nielsen and other homeland security officials to “take the lead” on strategic communications intended to highlight the Pentagon’s role. It also made clear the troops would carry no weapons.

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