A new bill about to be brought to the House floor is shifting focus off Syrian refugees and on to a little known loophole in the VISA system. Republican Oklahoma Representative Lt. Col. (ret.) Steve Russell (R) will be a driving force behind the bill when it’s brought to the U.S. House floor.
“Currently 38 countries have no visa requirement for their citizens to stay up to 90 days. Now, normally that's not been a problem but now it is,” Russell said on Friday.
The bill is titled the VISA Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Protection Act. Russell said its goal is to put limitations on visa stays, require visas for most foreign tourists and use highly sophisticated biometric passports. Something only Great Britain does right now.
“We're not going to eliminate the visa waiver program. We're going to restrict and put in place very high standards so that now we can protect our country and vet people who are entering here far better than we are currently,” he said.
The VISA waiver issue has been brought up in Congress since the terror attack in Paris several weeks ago. It came to light after 31 governors and conservative members of Congress said they didn’t want to accept Syrian refugees fleeing the Middle East. Many legislators, including Russell, said they waiver loophole is a larger issue that the potential of terrorists posing as refugees to be allowed into the country.
The VISA waiver bill hasn't been introduced yet, but Russell said when it is he expects to have something done with it by the end of the year.
Russell also said there are problems with how the US is fighting homegrown terror, like the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI deemed the shooting an act of terrorism Friday afternoon. Russell says there should be more freedom to fight ISIS online.
“Why are we allowing these people to recruit domestic homegrown citizens with some barbaric Islamic whacko mentality?” he asked calling cutting communication “tactics 101.”
Many foreign policy experts have said calling for combat against radical Islam is playing into ISIS’s narrative of Islam versus the west. Russell disagreed and said the War on Terror is not a fight against the religion Islam.
“This is not about that,” he said. “What I'm calling out is this Islamic Jihadist death cult. They're whackos. They're on the fringe of any kind of moral standard in anybody's religion.”
The representative added groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Imams should step up to denounce the attacks and they should be given “the microphone” to spread their condemnation.
In the days since the San Bernardino attack, the debate over gun control legislation has been reignited. But Russell said it’s those measures that are often partially to blame for attacks. He said the attack in California happened because of restrictions in that state surrounding guns and said that a bill that would prevent terror suspects from buying firearms was a violation of civil liberties.
“We have the god given, unalienable right, not government given granted, to defend ourselves. Now is not the time to talk about disarming Americans when they have the right to self-defense,” Russell said.
But still many in congress and across the country are calling for stronger gun laws like background checks and longer waiting periods. Russell disagreed and said laws are already in place and said he wouldn’t support any restrictive gun legislation.
“We have very good laws, what people are calling for in Congress already exist,” he said. “What we can't do is somehow think is if we take American's right of self-defense that they will not be more vulnerable… Let's not sacrifice our constitutional freedoms out of well-intended but draconian measures.
Russell has been a longtime advocate for gun owners’ rights. He owns a rifle making shop in Oklahoma as well.
Fighting Terror Overseas
On the ground in Syria and Iraq, he wants fewer restrictions on the military, but stopped short of calling for more troops on the ground, something other senior members of the Republican Party have begun calling for. He said the restrictions on ground units are preventing them from completing their missions and are allowing terror targets to escape.
“It's taking up to 28-30 days to get targeting approval. That's a bunch of nonsense! Let's stop that! Take the handcuffs that are off the troops that are already there and with the targeting capacity,” he said.
Russell acknowledged successes in ground and air missions in ISIS controlled territory, but said there need to be political and diplomatic victories as well. He criticized President Obama and said he wasn’t seeing those victories from his administration.
Women in Combat
The Pentagon announced Thursday it will be opening all combat roles to women in the military. Russell, a former Lt. Colonel in the Army Rangers, served with and decorated several female soldiers during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he’s for the opening of roles.
“If we can train all of our warriors on the battlefield to the highest capacity, why would we not attempt to do so,” he posited.
But he said there were concerns over “injuries and medical issues” that he wants investigated and addressed. He criticized Secretary of Defense Ash Carter for not answering those concerns.
Russell also commented on his ongoing investigation as to whether the first two female Army Rangers actually passed the required test. He has alluded in the past they did not and were passed for political reasons.
Army officials did respond to his investigation with a tersely worded statement saying they took offense to his questions of Army integrity, but they released Ranger school “transcripts” to Russell’s office. Russell has asked for more documents and records for his investigation.
“We do have a minor movement from the Army. They've been very stiff armed in the approached,” he said. “They've said while they won't give us the documents they will allow us to come and view the documents so now we're waiting to do that.”