FBI Director Comey: U.S. Citizens Fighting with ISIS Entitled to Return

A few days ago, FBI Director James Comey was interviewed on the CBS new program “60 Minutes”, with many questions posed in relation to terrorism and the terror group ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”) in particular.

The interview was so unsettling that I hardly know where to express my dismay.

FBI Director James Comey

First, there was the variance from recent statements by other senior officials, named and unnamed, about the number of American citizens fighting for ISIS. For instance, current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has publicly estimated a figure of about 100; others have ventured to say perhaps even 200. Mr. Comey says that the FBI has positively identified about a dozen. We don’t know if that means the others were wrong, or that the administration now wants to publicly scale back in order to avoid panic (as appears to be the case with the threat posed by the pandemic Ebola), or that the FBI director is simply saying “of the 200 or so, we can put our fingers on 12”.

Then there was the way Mr. Comey caveated his statement. Channeling his inner Donald Rumsfeld, he phrased it this way:

Scott Pelly: How many Americans are fighting in Syria on the side of the terrorists?

James Comey: In the area of a dozen or so.

Pelley: Do you know who they are?

Comey: Yes.

Pelley: Each and every one of them?

Comey: I think of that, dozen or so, I do. I hesitate only because I don’t know what I don’t know. [Emphasis added]

Then there was the fact that Mr. Comey says that American citizens fighting with ISIS are “entitled” to return to America. That’s a sobering thought and, in my view, not adequately nuanced. After all, if the United States government knows — really knows — that these individuals have joined up with a designated terrorist organization, it would seem that they should be arrested at the port of entry on their return for violation of at least a couple of serious federal crimes: providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (18 U.S.C. Section 2339B) and receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization (18 U.S.C. 2339D). Better yet, how about treason (“Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere…” (18 U.S.C. 2381).

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It’s notable that, the day before Mr. Comey’s interview aired, agents arrested a 19-year old Chicago-area man of Pakistani origin, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, for planning to leave the United States, travel through Turkey to Syria and join ISIS. How, one wonders, can a man be arrested for planning to join ISIS, but those who have actually done so get a free pass to return home? (I use the term “home” advisedly here, since clearly their loyalties lie elsewhere.)

I suppose that one answer depends on whether, as is likely, the information surrounding the 12 is classified, say, for instance, if it’s based on intercepts by the NSA doing its job as was intended (instead of spying on millions of Americans with no connection to terror). But there are ways around that. The Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) was written and signed into law specifically to ensure that there is no disconnect between the need to protect society through apprehension of criminals, terrorists, or spies on one hand, and the need to maintain sources and methods in the way intelligence is sometimes collected, on the other.

All of this — plus the wishy-washy way in which State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki dealt with the issue of revoking American passports for ISIS wannabes in a September 2 media briefing — lends credence to allegations made in the just-issued book by Leon Panetta, former CIA chief and Defense Secretary for President Obama, that the administration is timid and clueless when it comes to dealing firmly and aggressively with threats to the homeland.

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