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House Weighs Terror Threat Against Syrian Refugee Aid

WASHINGTON (CN) - Assuring Congress that the United States is prepared for the security risks in accepting Syrian refugees, government officials testified Wednesday about their counterterrorism strategies for the digital age.

Originally billed as a hearing on Russian actions in Syria, today's discussion before the House Committee on Homeland Security centered on the Obama administration's plans for the United States to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.

Members of the committee grilled officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center on their capacity to properly vet incoming refugees.

Noting that the United States must have confidence that no one entering the country have ties to the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Rep. Lamar Smith said terrorist organizations intend to take advantage of refugee programs like the one the United States intends to undertake next year.

Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson countered that such intentions will not necessarily translate to a wave of foreign fighters coming into the country.

"We know that they aspire to do that; I don't know that I would go so far as to say they are likely to succeed," Johnson told the Texas Republican.

Homeland Security's Johnson joined National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen and FBI Director James Comey in assuring the committee that their agencies have come a long way since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"In some ways, we are demonstrably safer thanks to the work of this committee and the whole of government," Comey said. "Our country is better organized, better deployed, smarter and tougher than we were before 9/11."

Still, the leaders acknowledged there are holes in their agencies' processes of vetting incoming refugees, especially in the cases of people who haven't made a "ripple in the pond" before coming into the country.

"The good news is we are much better at doing it than we were eight years ago, but the bad news is there is no risk-free process," Johnson told the committee.

Johnson said there are lessons to be learned from the agencies' handling of Iraqi refugees.

Fielding a question from Rep. Mike Rodgers, R-Ala., Johnson said the process of vetting refugees coming into the country from Syria would involve querying law-enforcement databases, coupled with in-person interviews of the refugees themselves.

The witnesses acknowledged that the process of identifying and cracking down on international fighters has changed with the rise of the Internet.

"Social media works to connect us." Comey said. "It works to sell cars or shoes or a movie, and it works to crowdsource terror."

ISIL has "broken the model," and uses social media to recruit and mobilize fighters at a level al-Qaida never reached, giving the group unprecedented access to people in western countries, the witnesses said.

Rasmussen noted that ISIL's ambition to control territory also seems to transcend al-Qaida's seeming contentedness with operating a clandestine terrorist organization.

For Comey, the way terrorist organizations use the Internet means his agency cannot necessarily be more successful simply by throwing more traditional resources at the problem.

"The challenge we face is solving problems where those tools under the Fourth Amendment are no longer as effective as they were before," Comey said.

This increased reach thanks to social media has put a strain on federal budgets, and Johnson implored the committee to end sequester cuts on his agency, especially given a surge of international terrorist activity in recent months.

Comey said the FBI has been forced to move some people from criminal investigations over to counterterrorism efforts to combat the surge.

"If what we experienced in May and June and the early part of July would become the new normal, it would really stretch the FBI," Comey said.

Johnson told the committee that the social-media and Internet presences of terrorist organizations have also made good cybersecurity policy more important.

He praised legislation in both the House and the Senate that seeks to mitigate the threat of cyberattacks from foreign sources.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on a cybersecurity bill Tuesday night, and the Senate is expected to vote on the measure soon.

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