Home Interview “We’re Better than We Were”

“We’re Better than We Were”

An inFOCUS interview with Representative Martha McSally

Rep. Martha McSally Fall 2018

U.S. Representative Martha McSally, elected to the House in 2014 from Arizona’s 2nd congressional district, serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee. She served in the United States Air Force from 1988 to 2010 and rose to the rank of colonel. One of the highest-ranking female pilots in the history of the Air Force, McSally was the first American woman to fly in combat following the 1991 lifting of the prohibition on female combat pilots. In 2001, she successfully challenged the military policy that required American and United Kingdom servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the body-covering abaya when traveling off base. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with her in September.

inFOCUS: This is the annual domestic issue of inFOCUS. One of our chief concerns is homeland security and how threats to our security are evolving. Can you talk about the appropriate role for the federal government versus the role of the states and cities?

Rep. McSally: The biggest evolution is the weaponization of social media. Radical Islamic terrorism has been around for a long time, but al Qaeda was hiding in mountains and using couriers—not really utilizing 21st century technologies to train, propagandize, recruit, and inspire people to commit terrorist acts in their own communities.

Martha McSally (R-AZ)

We saw a change with ISIS when they were able to take swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The last administration just watched it happen without doing anything. There were all sorts of blunders, and ISIS grew like a cancer. Think about the amount of territory they had.

It looked like they were winning. People want to join the winning team and ISIS was trying to find recruits. There have always been foreign fighters, people who travel around the world to the hot spots and the conflicts, where they fight and get training and experience, but it was unprecedented under ISIS. I believe there were as many as 40,000 people from 120 different countries—including 5,000 or so from Western countries—traveling in for the fight and for training.

On top of recruitment, they used social media to spread their word and to post their awful propaganda and videos for people who didn’t go to Syria. How to put a bomb together and how to make an IED [improvised explosive device], for example. So, with very little training and very little other information, individuals sitting in their own communities, who might be vulnerable to being turned and recruited, could be directed specifically or just inspired to act.

Now there is movement the other way, with us finally taking the gloves off and finally taking their territory away. But there is definitely a threat at home. Americans, or people here in our country, are either specifically recruited and directed to commit terrorist attacks in our communities, or are just inspired to take the direction from the organization and the leaders in a very decentralized way. Those people drive a truck down a bike path, shoot up a nightclub, or use whatever makeshift weapon they come up with.

See Something, Say Something

Rep. McSally: This is a generational fight. The latest name is ISIS, but it will eventually be replaced some other name.

The challenge that comes with that is identifying those who are going down the path of potential recruits or those who will be inspired. Here we are, 17 years after 9/11 [attacks by Al-Qaeda] and perhaps the most important thing we learned in the aftermath was how necessary it is to break down information stove pipes among federal agencies—horizontally as well as vertically. Between federal and local law enforcement and between law enforcement and other elements of civil society.

We still have to protect people’s civil liberties. Often times, these attacks happen, and investigators look back and there was just nothing there … the terrorists were not on anybody’s radar. They hadn’t committed any crimes. They hadn’t done anything wrong. But usually the people closest to them—whether it’s friends or family members or Facebook friends or religious leaders or coaches or teachers—people in the closest circle of engagement with an individual are the ones who know best that somebody is a potential concern or could become a potential threat.

That early intervention and that early identification or early reporting is crucial. “If you see something, say something” really matters both virtually and in the physical realm to quickly identify whether there’s a concern with someone, and maybe find an “off ramp” if they’re at the stage where they’re not hardened.

Then, we need a way for law enforcement to get the information and not have it stuck somewhere so it’s not acted upon or not shared, either by the federal government or local authorities. Often the local community law enforcement is going to be the first to respond, the first to engage. We’ve been really fighting to make sure we break down those stove pipes between the federal and local.

iF: How are we doing?

Rep. McSally: We’re doing better than we were, but we still have a way to go. We’ve created terrorism task forces that include cross-functional, cross-jurisdictional entities that help in information sharing. We have fusion centers across the country, as well, that are intended to share information among those jurisdictions. It’s still not enough in my view. Rural communities in particular are often are not well represented, or they don’t have the resources to access the information that is available to them. We have more to do across law enforcement.

I held a round table with executives and security professionals from what we consider to be “soft” venues, such as sporting arenas, the hotel industry, and music concert venues. Security leaders within those industries said, “Things are better than they were as far as the information sharing goes, with the people responsible as the front line of defense for the security, but it’s not enough.”

Even professionals with security clearances are often not given information in a timely manner, but even people who don’t have security clearances could be given what we call a “tear line” – without sources and methods—and just say, “Hey. Here is what we’re concerned about. Here is what we’re on the lookout for. These are the types of new tactics that we’re seeing that could be used.” The feedback from those that are out there responsible for the security of these venues has to go back to the government.

Information and Analytics

Rep. McSally: We have to be better in our use of technology in communication, analysis, and sharing information collaboratively. We have to take advantage of analytics as well, so we are not relying totally on human analysis.

We often have the benefit of a lot of information, but things are missed because we’re relying on human beings to be sitting there, putting it together and analyzing it.  You can’t rely totally on data analytics and machines – there has to be human oversight and, ultimately, human responsibility – but there is a better balance.

I saw this in the military. We had a massive amount of intelligence information and we just didn’t have enough intelligence analysts to be able to go through everything that was seen on those missions to make it useful in a timely manner.

We would find out later, maybe 48 hours later, that an SA-3 [missile] was set up in the back of a pickup truck, but by the time the information actually got to us, it was too late. It had already moved. It’s the same idea with security information. There is a lot of information out there. There is a lot of pretty sophisticated data analytics out there. Often, government is the last to become innovative in using some of these tools to increase situational awareness and prioritize how they should be further investigating.

For example, I often bring up the issue of deception detection technology. I’m not talking about a lie detector test, which is costly and limited. We’ve had some breakthroughs on things that detect, when you’re standing in front of them, what sort of indications are happening with your blood vessels and your eye movements and things that could indicate deception. Not guarantee, but could indicate deception.

Another technology was actually developed out of the University of Arizona, related to how people fill in online forms—such as in the Visa Waiver program. There is no in-person interview. If someone is coming from a Visa Waiver country to the United States, they can come on a 90-day visa. With homegrown terrorism and the ISIS diaspora going on in Europe, this is a real concern for us; people traveling here legally.

There is a technology that allows authorities to flag people based on how they fill out the form, where they hover with their mouse, where they click from yes to no and back. It’s not saying they’re guilty. It’s just saying, “Yellow Flag. Go ask this guy some additional questions.” That technology is out there. In at least nearly a half a dozen hearings, I’ve hammered on the Department of Homeland Security, “How is it going—using deception detection technology?”

We actually included it in one of the pieces of legislation that got signed into law; demanding and mandating that they start using some innovative deception detection technology.

In Las Vegas, the shooter’s fiancé came here with a Fiancé Visa. They did an interview and said, “Well, we didn’t notice any deception.” Well, you guys are really highly trained operatives and I have a lot of faith in you, but use some technology to back you up, right? Just to see if there are any indications that somebody is not being truthful to you, in a way that doesn’t slow down the process, but is able to speed it up. That’s the travel issue in addition to the homegrown issues.

We have to have a system where, if people are putting alerts in, somebody is doing something with them and they’re not being bogged down with information, so they don’t notice that the alert was in until after an awful attack happens.

Then we’ve got to be very mindful about the vulnerabilities we have for those who might be traveling here legally. Illegally is a separate issue.

Legal Immigration

iF: What would you want our readers to understand about legal and illegal immigration and how these things affect homeland security?

Rep. McSally: Often these things get caught up in partisan language, which is not helpful, so I always am going to ground myself in, what are the facts? What do we need to do to fix the system, so that we keep America safe, while we continue to have a very generous legal immigration system, which we do?

Over one million people a year get Green Cards and the opportunity for citizenship, in addition to a very generous refugee program, asylum program, and everything that goes with that. So, we need to be clear, this is not about being unfriendly to immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are a nation of laws. We shouldn’t have to choose between the two.

In my view, our legal immigration system, the laws on the books, is archaic. It needs to be modernized. The loopholes in the current legal system are such that cartels right now are taking advantage of them. We need to move our legal immigration system toward one that is more like Canada and Australia, which is more merit based. When I say, “merit based,” I don’t mean just people getting PhDs from our institutions. We should be stapling Green Cards to their diplomas, right, instead of having to go into other countries to compete against us.

We have a booming economy right now. Everywhere I go, what I hear is, we have a shortage of workers. It is true that we still need to get Americans off the sidelines. We still have Americans who need to be retrained for the jobs that are out there, but we also need an immigration system that is nimble and responsive enough to meet economic needs where the gaps are.

Right now, we have the Visa Lottery system, which needs to go away. And we have extended family migration, often called “chain migration.” We have to protect the nuclear family, but upwards of 70 percent of the Green Cards are to extended family: brothers, sisters, parents, and adult children.

That doesn’t make any sense for us. There are vulnerabilities in these programs, especially when they are so massive, and there are concerns about the vetting in which people that might be more vulnerable to becoming radicalized are allowed to come in through this process.

This isn’t about making labels. This is about identifying where there might be vulnerabilities and making sure that we keep us safe. I think we need to move away from “chain migration” and the visa lottery. We also have loopholes right now specifically in our asylum process and unaccompanied minors, where well-intended laws of the past are now being taken advantage of by trans-national criminal organizations.

Abuses in the Asylum System

iF: Would you talk a little bit more about the criminal organizations?

Rep. McSally: Yes. The cartel is a money-making operation and they are making money by trafficking people either against their will or by paying them a significant amount of money. They understand that if a migrant shows up at a port of entry and simply says the words, “I have a credible fear,” that’s all they have to say. The way our asylum law is executed, that puts you into the process.

Traffickers train people to say it, but they provide little or no proof that the people meet the legal definition of “asylum seeker,” which means you are being targeted—usually by your government, based on a particular class definition, which is often the political opposition or an ethnic or religious minority that is being targeted. It’s not that you come from a country that has poverty or violence. That’s not what the asylum law is for.

But they know if they say those words, they will be released into the interior of the United States with a court date years in the future. The vast majority do not show for the court date; they just disappear. Fewer than 20 percent of those who do show are actually granted asylum.

Legitimate asylum seekers are getting lost in this sea of the fraudulent ones taking advantage of the system. If we heard their cases quickly, then either they could be on the path of asylum or they would be sent back—because that’s the humane thing to do.

The humane thing to do is to not have people who entered legally but don’t meet the criteria waiting in limbo for years and then marrying an American citizen or having American citizen children and then—five years from now when their court date comes up—tell them, “You’re out of here; you don’t meet the criteria.” The humane thing to do is to swiftly hear their cases and get them out.

A Safe Third Country

Rep. McSally: We have to up the threshold of that initial interview, that initial determination, which is in the bill that I sponsored. It’s often called the Goodlatte Bill and it’s also the McSally Bill. There has to be some burden of proof for a legitimate asylum case at the initial interview.

The other issue is the unaccompanied children that again, was a well-intended law trying to stop human trafficking or child trafficking in the past, but now the cartels are taking advantage of it because they know that if you’re not from a contiguous country, Mexico or Canada, we can’t return you. We have to go through a very challenging process, which is not good for children after they’ve already been through an arduous journey. Our bill also allows us to swiftly return unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries.

If you are a legitimate asylum seeker and you are able to flee your country, as soon as you get to what we call a “safe third country,” you should be able to file your asylum claim. If you are being targeted by the government of Guatemala, for example, and you feel that you meet the threshold for asylum, as soon as you get to Mexico, you should be safe and your asylum claim should be filed and processed in that safe third country. Not after a 2,000-plus-mile trek to the port of entry in Arizona just to make your claim there.

iF: Are we getting some help from the Mexican government? I can imagine them throwing up their hands and saying not too much for them.

Rep. McSally: We are getting some level of help, but they need to up their game; their southern border is far smaller than our southern border and we’ve actually provided some assistance to them for that. For a long time, they were doing nothing. After the first “unaccompanied minor” flood gates opened around 2014, we saw a shift. They had been doing nothing.

They have worked at some level to process some asylum claims in their country, but it’s just not enough. In many cases, they will hand migrants what amounts to a temporary legal pass. The Mexican government may say that the intent is that the migrants will go back, but they know that they can use those papers to just make it up to our border. They definitely need to do more. We’re in this together and it’s a security as well as an economic issue.

Visa Overstay

Rep. McSally: There is the potential for human traffickers to find some collaboration with those who want to do us harm. It would be easier for terrorists to find somebody who can come over through the Visa Waiver program from a European country than to take a trek down through Central America and up through Mexico. But it is a vulnerability that has to be closed.

We have to secure our border. In our bill, we also have a visa overstay provision—the biometric entry/exit program—which has been mandated by Congress for years now and funded. But they’ve really struggled with implementing it.

We’re forcing the issue now and it looks like they’re testing a low infrastructure—low manpower—biometric identification system for entry/exit.

Right now, we don’t track people when they leave here. They can do it now biographically, which means seeing if your name is on the manifest, but that’s not 100 percent effective.

Somebody could go through security at TSA [Transportation Safety Administration] and never get on the airplane, or there could be a misspelling or misidentification. But we are testing biometric exit tracking for international travelers that actually looks like it has some promise at much lower cost than some of the ideas they’ve had in the past.

And then there are the land and sea ports of entry, but at the airports of entry, that actually would be a really important breakthrough for us. Last year, more people over stayed their visas than were caught coming over the border illegally.

Cyber Security

iF: I want to get the words “cyber terror” and “cyber security” In here. It’s not just bombs. It’s not just people who blow people up. How are we doing on cyber?

Rep. McSally: I was a legislative fellow for Senator John Kyl back in 1999 and 2000. He was the Judiciary Committee sub-committee chair on technology, terrorism, and government information. One main part of my portfolio was this issue of cyber terrorism and cyber security and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities for cyber attack. Think about that. I actually helped author the Cyber Security Act of 2000 related to some of these things that we raised in the hearings.

I left my legislative fellowship and went back to flying fighters and doing my responsibilities in the military. Then I retired (2010), and was serving as a professor at the Marshall Center [George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies]. We started talking about cyber issues and I felt like I was in a time warp because I was just diving deep into it again. Really, we’ve hit the pause button as the threat continues to grow—both  state sponsored, especially state sponsored, but also non-state actors—and  we did hardly anything from that time in 2000, pre-9/11, when we were very much focused on this vulnerability, until the last few years. The vulnerability is growing. Our reliance on cyber for our military capabilities, our way of life, our financial institutions, our power grids, is greater than ever. Our enemies have grown to much greater sophistication than we have. We’re behind.

Some of the things that this administration is doing are right on target. We’re setting up a U.S. Cyber Command. We’ve passed legislation in the House related to better information sharing between Homeland Security and the private sector. We can share threats and they can better prepare. Although that still needs to permeate through the system and be implemented in a much more robust way. The administration just rescinded an Obama-era directive related to the very cumbersome process that you’d have to go through in order to do any sort of offensive operations.

I look at this like it’s a domain. We fight in air, land, sea, space, and cyber. These are the domains in which bad guys can try to do us harm. They may not be hitting us with a JDAM [Joint Direct Attack Munition or “smart bomb”], but if you’re taking out a power grid, or you’re hitting a financial institution as we saw happen in Estonia and we’ve seen happen in Ukraine, it is harm nonetheless. I was over there actually last year, and it looks as if Russia is testing capabilities. We saw it happen in Georgia too.

Our vulnerabilities are very real. The threats are very sophisticated. We are finally, I think, paying enough attention to it. We’re always going to be the best when we put our mind and our effort and our people to something, but we haven’t really had the focus and the will in the past. It’s been very disjointed. I think now with this administration and the focus that we have both within the military and other departments, we are moving in the right direction.

iF: Thank you for your your insights, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Magazine.