Former Director Of National Counterterrorism Center Weighs In On Border Situation NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Nicholas Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about national security and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Former Director Of National Counterterrorism Center Weighs In On Border Situation

Former Director Of National Counterterrorism Center Weighs In On Border Situation

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NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Nicholas Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about national security and the U.S.-Mexico border.


One argument the Trump administration has made is that a wall on the southern border would keep out terrorists. The argument has changed over time. Here was White House press secretary Sarah Sanders speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.


SARAH SANDERS: We know that, roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally. And we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.

CHRIS WALLACE: Wait. Wait, 'cause I know this statistic.


WALLACE: I didn't know if you were going to use it, but I studied up on this. Do you know where those 4,000 people come - or where they're captured? The airports.

SANDERS: Not always...

WALLACE: At airports.

SANDERS: ...But certainly a large number.

WALLACE: The State Department says there hasn't been any terrorist that they've found...

SANDERS: Certainly it's...

WALLACE: ...Coming across the southern border of Mexico.

SANDERS: It's by air. It's by land, and it's by sea.

SHAPIRO: NBC then reported that the actual number of suspected terrorists detained at the border was six, not thousands, according to data that Customs and Border Protection gave Congress for the first half of fiscal year 2018. Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway then said the press secretary had made a misstatement.

Well, our next guest has firsthand knowledge of the terrorist threat and whether it is centered at the border, airports or someplace else altogether. Nick Rasmussen ran the government's National Counterterrorism Center for three years through 2017. Welcome.

NICK RASMUSSEN: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So you briefed top government officials up to and including the president on the state of the terrorist threat. Did the southern border factor into those briefings?

RASMUSSEN: It did, but only episodically and not in a really prominent way. It was a logical question for people to be asking, Ari, you know, given the concerns about vulnerability at the southern border. There were often members of Congress or other senior officials who would ask, hey, how are terrorists thinking about the southern border? Are they trying to infiltrate operatives? Are people traveling across the southern border who are of terrorism concern?

And what we would say in the intelligence community is, to the best of our knowledge, the answer is largely no, they're not. It is certainly a concern. It is certainly a potential vulnerability. But it was a vulnerability that was not translating into actual numbers of terrorists crossing into the country and certainly not the kind of volume that you've been hearing administration officials refer to.

SHAPIRO: One detail I found interesting in that document that Customs and Border Protection provided to Congress is that last year, more suspected terrorists were apprehended on the northern border with Canada than the southern border with Mexico.

RASMUSSEN: And again, it just goes to the problem that we've seen in terms of marshalling facts and supportive arguments here because, again, the facts would suggest that we don't face a crisis at the southern border in terms of terrorists trying to cross into the United States.

We have an effective watchlisting system. It can always improve, but it's not as if we are somehow at the mercy of terrorist organizations and that there are large numbers of terrorists at the southern border crossing into the United States or waiting to do so. It just simply isn't the case.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at where the threat actually is today, what is the weakest point, and where would you funnel money to address that?

RASMUSSEN: Well, as my colleagues in government and in the intelligence community have said in public testimony, the most serious threat we face from a terrorism perspective here in the United States right now comes from homegrown violent extremists. And those homegrown violent extremists tend to be individuals who've been here for a long time in the United States. They may even have been born here. They have become radicalized or potentially attracted to terrorist ideologies over time, but it's not something that attaches to their particular immigration status or when they arrived or something like that.

That homegrown piece of it is really the piece we should be funneling resources at, working with communities to try to find ways to reach vulnerable individuals before they become radicalized, before they become a potential terrorist in a community somewhere here in the United States. That's not a border security problem. That's more of a community policing and a community resilience problem.

SHAPIRO: It's an interesting conclusion that al-Qaida, ISIS and other similar groups have found it is easier to radicalize people who are already in the country than it is to get people into the country - says something about the strength of the border and airports already in the present day.

RASMUSSEN: And again, you know, I'm not here to tell you that our border security is perfect from a terrorism or counterterrorism perspective. And there's always ways we can improve and get better.

But the degree of progress that we've made since 9/11 in making our borders more secure is something that's not to be understated and certainly shouldn't be - shouldn't be thrown around in political debate in a way that somehow undermines the American public's confidence in our border security. At least with respect to terrorism, it just simply isn't the case that we are vulnerable at the southern border in the way that - that some officials are describing.

SHAPIRO: That's Nick Rasmussen, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, who worked in counterterrorism under three administrations. Thanks for joining us today.

RASMUSSEN: Thanks very much, Ari.

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