Ayotte On Halting Syrian Refugees: National Security Comes Before Compassion

Nov 17, 2015

Kelly Ayotte
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, Sen. Kelly Ayotte is among the political leaders here in the Granite State pushing back against President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.

"Well, we’re certainly a compassionate nation, but national security has to come first," Ayotte told NHPR's Morning Edition.

"The prudent course if you look at what happened in Paris, the information that we have now that one of the terrorists may have come in as a refugee, then we do need to certainly halt this program," Ayotte said. "We need to be able to guarantee to the American people that none of the individuals that are being brought to the United States have any connections to ISIS. I think that’s important because we certainly don’t want to put our country at risk."

Reports indicate one of the Paris attackers may have entered the country as a Syrian refugee.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Ayotte's re-election, also says the government needs to ensure a thorough vetting process before letting in any more Syrian refugees.

Hassan is the lone Democratic governor taking such a position.

Here is the full transcript of Sen. Ayotte's interview:

Sen. Ayotte, on this issue, you and your colleague Sen. Jeanne Shaheen offered vastly different takes Monday.

Sen. Shaheen says the government’s vetting process refugees is already extensive; she goes on to say the U.S. must ensure that our treatment of refugees quote-continues to adhere to our principles as a nation.

So she’s saying closing the door to Syrian refugees is the U.S. abandoning its principles. What’s your response to that?

Well, we’re certainly a compassionate nation, but national security has to come first, and here’s my concern. We know that FBI Director James Comey in October before the House Homeland Security Committee only a few weeks ago that the federal government may not have the ability to thoroughly vet all the Syrian refugees. He actually explained that many of them, they don’t have any background on and they have an inadequate basis to judge them. In fact, if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or interest reflected in our database, there’ll be nothing because there’s no record on that person.

I think the prudent course if you look at what happened in Paris, the information that we have now that one of the terrorists may have come in as a refugee, then we do need to certainly halt this program. We need to be able to guarantee to the American people that none of the individuals that are being brought to the United States have any connections to ISIS. I think that’s important because we certainly don’t want to put our country at risk.

You say no refugees related to the Syrian crisis should be admitted to this country until the U.S. government can guarantee, with 100 percent assurance, they are not members or sympathizers of ISIS.

Of course, I assume each one will be reviewed and I want to get 100 percent guarantee they’re not engaged with ISIS. I think the people of this country and the people of New Hampshire deserve that in light of what happened in Paris and in light of the risk that we’re facing.

But what type of vetting process can guarantee 100 percent assurance? Does such a process exist?

I would hope that it would exist when it comes to terrorism, so that’s a real question. We have the director of our FBI raising questions just as recently as a few weeks ago of whether we can thoroughly vet the refugees that are coming in from Syria. I think that is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed and the people of the country deserve it to be addressed before we bring people here.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says the country already has an extensive screening process for Syrian refugees, one that involves the intelligence community, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Is not thorough enough? Or are you questioning whether that’s the screening process actually being used?

I don’t know if Ben Rhodes has given the testimony that the director of the FBI has given. There are also issues the Director of National Intelligence (James) Clapper has brought up about intelligence concerns about the potential for ISIS to infiltrate refugees. These are real issues that seem to contradict in my view what we’re hearing from Ben Rhodes. You would think in light of what happened in Paris, we would want to re-evaluate and make sure that we can guarantee to the American people the individuals that we’re bringing here are not connected to ISIS.

Do you worry about some countries in Europe following the lead of America in closing its borders to Syrian refugees, and deepening the crisis there?

Every country is going to have to make their own decisions on these issues and they’re going to have to obviously be satisfied that the system they have in place is going to be able to protect their countries. We need to work together. I think this is a very important moment for NATO. We should all be coming together. We should all be sharing intelligence with obviously our partners, which I know is happening, but we need to push to make sure that happens further. We need to stand with the French and support them through this horrific time in what’s happened to their country. And we need to ensure that we’re all collectively working together to make sure this doesn’t happen again.