Rob’s Rundown: Week of September 20 - September 24, 2021
Senator Portman was back in Washington this week where, on Tuesday, he delivered remarks on the Senate floor outlining his opposition to Democrats’ massive $3.5 trillion tax and spending bill. Portman explained how the tax hikes will hurt the economy, undermine job creation and squeeze working families who are already dealing with higher prices from surging inflation.
At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, Portman delivered opening remarks outlining the threats to our nation. Portman discussed the increased threat due to the U.S.’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as his support for the resettlement of Afghans who stood in battle with the U.S. over the last 20 years, but he pressed for answers on the screening, vetting, and status of the vast majority of the evacuees who were paroled into the U.S.
During Tuesday’s HSGAC hearing, Portman also pressed the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on when the Biden administration will put policies in place to address the worst migrant crisis in more than 21 years. Later that afternoon, Portman joined Fox News’ America Reports with John Roberts & Sandra Smith to discuss the ongoing crisis in Del Rio, Texas, which is a direct result of the Biden administration’s decision to dismantle the previous administration’s border policies with no consideration of the consequences and has resulted in a historic surge of unlawful migrants, unaccompanied children, and deadly narcotics like fentanyl coming into our country through our southern border.
On Tuesday morning, Portman joined CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss the Democrats’ reckless $3.5 trillion tax and spending spree as well as the debt limit. Portman noted that Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion spending bill and are gearing up to force through a $3.5 trillion bill – the largest in American history – without a single Republican vote. As such, it is unreasonable to expect Republicans to step forward and raise the debt limit – which would effectively enable Democrats to continue pushing their partisan spending bills. Portman addressed the Democrats’ spending bill again on Wednesday in an interview with FOX Business’ Kudlow in which he explained how it would hurt the economy, job creation, and working families who are already paying higher prices at the pump and in grocery stores because of surging inflation.
On Thursday, Portman delivered opening remarks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in which he highlighted the need for accountability for cybersecurity in the federal government to ensure a more effective national defense against cyberattacks. Portman also stressed the importance of improving baseline cybersecurity practices throughout the federal government.
On Monday, Portman delivered remarks at the Ohio State Building & Construction Trades Council Constitutional Convention, where he discussed the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the positive impact it will have on Ohio's economy in both the near term and for years to come.
Portman also announced that the Senate’s FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $8.7 million to widen an assault runway at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station (YARS), $1.35 billion in funding to upgrade Abrams tanks, $1 billion for upgrading Stryker Vehicles, and $331.5 million to produce Stryker chassis to support the Army’s Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) program. Portman has been a strong advocate for both Lima and the Abrams and Stryker programs, ensuring that our men and women of the military have the best and most lethal weapons systems while keeping good, high-paying jobs in Lima.
Finally, Portman encouraged survivors of CityXGuide advertisements to come forward to receive restitution as the CityXGuide owner pleaded guilty to online sex trafficking charges under Portman’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).
For a more detailed look at Senator Portman’s week, please see the following:
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
On CNBC’s Squawk Box, Portman Discusses Democrats’ Reckless Spending Priorities, Inflation and Tax Increases
In an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed the Democrats’ reckless $3.5 trillion tax and spending spree, underscoring how it would hurt the economy, job creation, and working families who are already paying higher prices at the pump and in grocery stores because of surging inflation.
Portman noted that Democrats’ passed a $1.9 trillion spending bill and are gearing up to force through a $3.5 trillion bill – the largest in American history – without a single Republican vote. As such, it is unreasonable to expect Republicans to step forward and raise the debt limit – which would effectively enable Democrats’ to continue pushing their partisan spending bills.
Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Announces Portman as a 2021 Congressional Clean Energy Champion
Portman was announced as one of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions’ (CRES) Clean Energy Champions for 2021. CRES annually honors federal policymakers who have gone above and beyond in driving and supporting clean energy legislation. Portman is one of four 2021 awardees who will be formally recognized at the CRES Clean Energy Champions Reception tonight — the second day of National Clean Energy Week (NCEW).
“I’m honored to receive the 2021 CRES Clean Energy Champion award,” Portman said. “Clean energy solutions help foster innovation and job creation, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to deliver results for Ohio.”
Portman Outlines Evolving Threats to American Homeland Security 20 Years After 9/11
Portman outlined the threats to our nation at a hearing titled: “Threats to the Homeland: Evaluating the Landscape 20 Years After 9/11.”
Portman highlighted how the catastrophic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan leaving the Taliban in charge, with United Nations blacklisted terrorists serving in its highest ranks, has increased the threat to the United States. Portman supports the resettlement of Afghans who stood in battle with us over the last 20 years and all Afghan evacuees who pass rigorous vetting. Portman repeated his request for a classified member briefing on the vetting and screening procedures for Afghan evacuees as soon as possible.
In addition, Portman discussed the ongoing crisis at the southern border due to the Biden administration’s decision to dismantle the previous administration’s border policies with no consideration of the consequences, which has resulted in a historic surge of unlawful migrants, unaccompanied children, and deadly narcotics like fentanyl coming into our country.
Finally, Portman detailed how the United States has experienced an increase of large-scale cyberattacks from nation-states criminals. Portman also outlined how China continues to pose a threat to our homeland as they continue to recruit U.S.-based scientists and researchers to transfer U.S. taxpayer-funded intellectual property for China’s military and economic gain.
Biden Administration Officials Agree with Portman on Increased Threat to U.S. Due to Catastrophic Withdrawal from Afghanistan
During a hearing titled: “Threats to the Homeland: Evaluating the Landscape 20 Years After 9/11,” Biden administration officials agreed with Portman that the United States faces an increased threat due to the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban in charge, with United Nations blacklisted terrorists serving in its highest ranks.
Portman discussed his support for the resettlement of Afghans who stood in battle with the U.S. over the last 20 years, but he pressed for answers on the screening, vetting, and status of the vast majority of the evacuees who were paroled into the U.S. and whether they have worked with us or our allies. Portman repeated his request for a classified member briefing on the vetting and screening procedures for Afghan evacuees as soon as possible.
Portman Presses DHS Secretary Mayorkas on Need for Action to Address Worst Migrant Crisis in More Than 21 Years
Portman discussed the ongoing crisis at the southern border at a hearing titled: “Threats to the Homeland: Evaluating the Landscape 20 Years After 9/11.” The ongoing border crisis is due to the Biden administration’s decision to dismantle the previous administration’s border policies with no consideration of the consequences and has resulted in a historic surge of unlawful migrants, unaccompanied children, and deadly narcotics like fentanyl coming into our country. Senator Portman pressed the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on when the Biden administration will put policies in place to address the worst migrant crisis in more than 21 years. Portman highlighted the need for an orderly and lawful immigration system while also addressing the pull factor that incentivizes migrants to make the journey to the United States.
Portman Op-Ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer: A Path Forward for the Brent Spence Bridge
On Fox News’ America Reports with John Roberts & Sandra Smith, Senator Rob Portman, Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed the ongoing crisis in Del Rio, Texas, which is a direct result of the Biden administration’s decision to dismantle the previous administration’s border policies with no consideration of the consequences and has resulted in a historic surge of unlawful migrants, unaccompanied children, and deadly narcotics like fentanyl coming into our country through our southern border.
Earlier today at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Portman pressed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on when the Biden administration will put policies in place to address the worst migrant crisis in more than 21 years. Portman emphasized the need for an orderly and lawful immigration system while also addressing the pull factor that incentivizes migrants to make the journey to the United States.
On Senate Floor, Portman Discusses How Democrats’ Tax Hikes Will Hurt Economy, Working Families
On the Senate floor, Portman joined his colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee in explaining how the Democrats’ plan for massive tax hikes to pay for their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package will hurt the economy, job creation and working families who are already dealing with higher prices from surging inflation.
Portman highlighted that these tax hikes extend to a wide range of areas, from the capital gains tax to the estate tax, to the marriage tax penalty, to taxes on small businesses. Portman pointed out how proposed changes like raising the corporate tax rate, shifting tax enforcement to a country-by-country basis, and getting rid of provisions that incentivized U.S. companies to invest in U.S. workers and innovation would make the United States uncompetitive in the global economy, and undo the critical reforms in the 2017 Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that helped create a historically strong economy before the COVID-19 pandemic.
A video can be found here.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Portman, Cardin Commend Biden Administration for Continuing U.S. Policy Against Participation in U.N. Conference That Promotes Anti-Israel Agendas
Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken commending the Biden administration for continuing the United States’ long-standing policy to boycott the United Nation’s World Conference on Racism, also known as the Durban Conference IV. The Durban Conference, first held in 2001, does not advance the cause of combatting racism, but rather promotes a discriminatory and anti-Israel agenda. This year, a record number of 31 countries plan to boycott the conference.
“Both Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations have consistently boycotted Durban in support of American principles and our Israeli ally,” wrote the senators. “We greatly appreciate comments made earlier this year by the State Department, reiterating that ‘the United States stands with Israel and has always shared its concerns over the Durban process’s anti-Israel sentiment, use as a forum for anti-Semitism, and freedom of expression issues.’”
Text of the letter can be found here.
Portman Outlines How Merit System Protection Board Nominees Must Safeguard the Integrity & Efficiency of the Federal Government
Portman outlined how the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) must safeguard the integrity and efficiency of the federal government at a hearing to consider the nominations of Cathy A. Harris to serve as a member and Chair of the MSPB, and Tristan L. Leavitt and Raymond A. Limon to serve as members of the MSPB. Portman expressed the need to hear from the nominees about how they would promptly address the MSPB’s case backlog, protect the federal merit system against partisan, political, or other prohibited personnel practices, and protect whistleblowers.
Portman Emphasizes Importance of Protecting Whistleblowers to Merit System Protection Board Nominees
Portman heard from Cathy A. Harris, the nominee to be member and Chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and Tristan L. Leavitt and Raymond A. Limon, the nominees to serve as members of the MSPB, on how, if confirmed, they would study and report to Congress on existing whistleblower protection issues and ways to improve those protections through law.
In addition, Portman pressed Ms. Harris on her past partisan comments on social media. Portman highlighted that the MSPB aims to protect the federal merit system against partisan, political, or other prohibited personnel practices, and her prior statements raise concerns over whether all employees will be fairly heard and fairly treated before the MSPB.
On FOX Business, Portman Discusses Democrats’ Reckless Spending Priorities, Inflation and Tax Increases
Senator Portman joined FOX Business’ Kudlow to discuss the debt limit and outline his concerns with the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending bill. Portman explained how it would hurt the economy, job creation, and working families who are already paying higher prices at the pump and in grocery stores because of surging inflation.
With regards to the debt limit, Portman noted that Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion spending bill and are gearing up to force through a $3.5 trillion bill – the largest in American history – without a single Republican vote. As such, it is unreasonable to expect Republicans to step forward and raise the debt limit – which would effectively enable Democrats to continue pushing their partisan spending bills.
Portman Promotes Bipartisan JOBS Act at Senate HELP Subcommittee Hearing on Reentering the Workforce
By invitation from the Chairman and Ranking Member, Portman addressed the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, And Pensions) Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety’s hearing examining how to get Americans back to work, particularly through apprenticeship training programs.
Portman discussed how his bipartisan JOBS Act – bipartisan legislation he introduced with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) – is an important step in helping Americans gain access to short-term training programs, which provide valuable skills training in a number of middle-skills areas, and in turn a higher chance of finding a job. Senator Portman hopes that his colleagues in the Senate will support the legislation to ensure we can begin to fill the jobs' gap that we see today.
Thursday, September 23, 2021
Portman, Carper Applaud Release of GAO Report on Online Federal Government Commenting Systems
Portman applauded the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the release of its review of online government commenting systems. Portman and Carper requested the report from GAO in 2018. The GAO report adds to the growing body of work, including the bipartisan report Senators Portman and Carper released in 2019, as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), identifying deficiencies in online government commenting systems. The PSI report revealed rampant use of stolen identities to post comments on proposed regulations with no recourse for identity theft victims, more than 100,000 comments containing profanity and threats of violence, and comments designed to flood the systems, such as comments containing entire movie scripts and the text of War and Peace.
Federal agencies generally are required to seek input from the public and incorporate feedback before issuing final regulations that have the force of law. The main way people submit comments is through online commenting systems—either Regulations.gov or websites hosted by specific agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Through a substantial survey of ten agencies, the GAO found that, depending on the agency, up to 30 percent of commenters who provided email addresses said they did not submit the comment associated with their identities. These data illustrate the need for ongoing efforts to ensure the validity of comments and commenter identities. The report also builds on the 2019 PSI report by making recommendations to improve online commenting to ensure the comments can be used effectively by federal agencies and improve accessibility for the American public.
“I am grateful to the Government Accountability Office for releasing the report we requested and their continued efforts to ensure that the government works effectively for the American people,” said Senator Portman. “The notice-and-comment rulemaking process is a critical way American citizens and organizations can help the government understand how the regulations the government proposes will affect them. Regulations.gov and other federal agency websites used to collect comments should be secure and easy to navigate, and they should clearly inform commenters how they will use their data. At the same time, people who abuse the comment process by trying to overwhelm the systems or filing comments using stolen identities should be held accountable. I hope federal agencies will adopt the GAO’s recommendations and work to improve the online commenting experience.”
Portman, Klobuchar Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Increase Government Transparency by Publishing Federal Reports Online
Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, introduced the bipartisan Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act to increase government transparency by establishing a publicly accessible website with a library of all non-confidential agency reports mandated by the legislative branch. The bipartisan legislation requires federal agencies to submit to the Government Publishing Office (GPO) all congressionally mandated reports after each agency redacts information that would not be publicly disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). GPO would publish all reports submitted by agencies to said website and ensure that all federal agencies submit their reports. The legislation is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Maggie Hassan (D-NH).
“Congress requires the executive branch to produce thousands of reports on a wide variety of topics each year, but there is not one easily accessible location for Congress or the American public to read these reports,” said Portman. “A public website with a library of these reports would enhance our democracy by promoting transparency in government and giving citizens access to taxpayer-funded reports and studies. American taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent and I hope my colleagues with join me in supporting this bipartisan legislation.”
Portman: Federal Government Needs Accountability in Cybersecurity
Portman highlighted the need for accountability for cybersecurity in the federal government to ensure a more effective national defense against cyberattacks. Portman also stressed the importance of improving baseline cybersecurity practices throughout the federal government.
Last month, Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a bipartisan report reviewing cybersecurity at eight federal agencies and documenting the continued failure of seven of those agencies to comply with the baseline cybersecurity requirements in the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA) and to safeguard America’s data. The report titled Federal Cybersecurity: America’s Data Still at Risk shows that, two years after Portman’s bipartisan 2019 report on federal agency cybersecurity, which he released as then-Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), there are still systemic failures to safeguard American data at the Department of State; the Department of Transportation; the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Health and Human Services; the Department of Education; and the Social Security Administration, including failures: to protect personally identifiable information adequately, to maintain accurate and comprehensive IT asset inventories, to maintain current authorizations to operate for information systems, to install security patches quickly, and to retire legacy technology no longer supported by the vendor.
Portman Questions Cybersecurity Officials in Wake of ManageEngine Vulnerability and Increased Cyberattacks
Portman pressed Biden administration cybersecurity officials on the need for accountability for cybersecurity in the federal government to ensure a more effective national defense against cyberattacks, especially in the wake of the most recent ManageEngine cyberattack and increased cyberattacks against the private sector and federal agencies.
In response to Portman’s questions, Jen Easterly, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, explained the danger posed by the ongoing ManageEngine cyberattack. The CISA alert noted it “poses a serious risk to critical infrastructure companies, U.S.-cleared defense contractors, academic institutions, and other entities that use the software.” Director Easterly disclosed that CISA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the ManageEngine vulnerability at the Port of Houston which they believe was the work of a nation-state actor.
Senator Portman also discussed his upcoming bipartisan legislation to ensure proper reporting requirements in the event of cyber and ransomware attacks so that the appropriate federal agencies and Congress are aware, activated, and have the information to help mitigate the effects.
Portman Announces FY 2022 NDAA Includes $8.7 Million For Assault Runway Improvement at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station
Portman announced that the Senate’s FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $8.7 million to widen an assault runway at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station (YARS). This will allow C-17 and C-130 pilots to perform required training landings in the Mahoning Valley, improving both our military readiness as well as strengthening the strategic viability of the base for decades to come.
Portman has consistently fought for YARS, which employs more than 2,000 people, to ensure it has the resources it needs to perform its mission. He discussed the need for a runway expansion with base leaders during a visit in June and advocated for this project as part of the Senate’s NDAA process.
“Currently, due to scheduling delays, clogged runways, and increased costs due to the required additional fuel consumption, YARS aircraft and crews must travel to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina to preform required training landings. This funding will widen the assault runway located at YARS and allow our YARS servicemen and women to conduct this vital training in the Mahoning Valley. As the largest employer in Trumbull County, YARS has had a significant economic impact on the region, deployed its resources to those in need across the globe, and defended the values we hold dearest as Americans, and I’m proud this funding to support the base’s operations is included in the Senate’s annual defense bill.”
Portman Announces FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act Increases Funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative
Portman announced that the Senate’s FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) extends the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and increases funding from $250 million to $300 million per year, including at least $75 million specifically for lethal assistance. These funds are used to help train, equip, and provide support for the Ukrainian government in their effort to defend their territory and autonomy against ongoing Russian aggression. Senator Portman, a co-founder and co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released the following statement:
“I am pleased to see this extension and increase in security aid to our ally Ukraine and I’m proud it’s included in the Senate’s annual defense bill. It is clear that the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative continues to provide our allies in Ukraine with the assistance they need to defend their sovereign territory – on the land, sea, and air. I’m proud to have led the effort in Congress to secure this crucial funding. The Ukrainian military has fought bravely and made tremendous strides against Russian aggression. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure the United States continues to stand with Ukraine in their fight to secure a democratic, prosperous, and independent future.”
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Portman Announces Senate FY 2022 NDAA Includes Funding for Abrams Tanks, Stryker Vehicles, and Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense
Portman announced that the Senate’s FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $1.35 billion in funding to upgrade Abrams tanks, which will continue the production of the M1A2 SEPv3 upgraded Abrams tanks at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center (JSMC) in Lima, Ohio in order to ensure that our forward-deployed soldiers have tanks with the most cutting-edge capabilities. The bill also includes $1 billion for upgrading Stryker Vehicles. Also included is $331.5 million to produce Stryker chassis to support the Army’s Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) program. Portman has been a strong advocate for both Lima and the Abrams and Stryker programs, ensuring that our men and women of the military have the best and most lethal weapons systems while keeping good, high-paying jobs in Lima. Senator Portman issued the following statement regarding the announcement:
“This funding is so important for the Lima and the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center (JSMC), which supports our troops both at home and around the globe, and its irreplaceable workforce. The newest version of the Abrams tank, the M1A2 SEPv3, is a vital investment for our soldiers to meet the realities highlighted in the latest National Defense Strategy, and they come off the line at JSMC in Lima. This funding will ensure that more tanks are produced at Lima and get to our forward deployed soldiers.
“I am also pleased the NDAA includes funding for producing Stryker A1 vehicles. This authorization will help provide long-term stability to the industrial base and ensure our soldiers are rapidly provided with the most capable and survivable vehicle coming off the line.
“This year’s NDAA also includes funding for the M-SHORAD program, which is good news for the Army and the world-class workforce in Lima. The Army has developed the M-SHORAD program to deal with the new, short-range air defense threats on the modern battlefield, based off the highly capable Stryker platform that is produced in Lima. This funding is critical in ensuring our armed forces have the best weapons systems at their disposal.”
Portman Encourages Survivors of CityXGuide Advertisements to Come Forward As Owner Pleads Guilty to Online Sex Trafficking Charges
Portman praised the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for securing the first guilty plea under Portman’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). SESTA is bipartisan legislation enacted in 2018 as part of a broader congressional effort to help stop online sex trafficking and provide justice for victims. CityXGuide owner Wilhan Martono, pleaded guilty to one count of promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation in aid of racketeering enterprises - facilitating prostitution. Portman is encouraging survivors of CityXGuide advertisements, who are afforded rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and may be eligible for restitution, to visit this DOJ website to submit their information. Portman issued the following statement:
“Sex traffickers who sell women and children online must be held accountable for their actions, and I encourage any and all CityXGuide survivors to submit their information to the DOJ since they may be eligible for compensation for the damage caused by CityXGuide. I applaud the Justice Department for their tireless work prosecuting CityXGuide and I’m pleased that my SESTA law made this indictment possible by clarifying that it is illegal to knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. The law also ensures that sex trafficking victims can seek justice through civil suits and that states may prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws. I will continue to work to ensure that no more women or children become victims of this terrible crime.”
Senators’ Statement Urging House of Representatives to Pass Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Mitt Romney (R-UT) issued the following statement, urging the House of Representatives to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill:
“Passage of the historic bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Monday would be a great victory for the American people. It will modernize and upgrade our roads, bridges, ports, and broadband; increase the resiliency of our electric grid and coastal areas; and create jobs and long-term economic growth without raising taxes on everyday Americans or increasing inflation.
“Importantly, this bipartisan bill is a testament to what Congress can achieve when we put partisanship aside and focus on moving the country forward. Congress has talked about modernizing our nation’s infrastructure for as long as we can remember. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act deserves the support of House Republicans and Democrats alike. We urge the House of Representatives to pass the bill on Monday when it comes up for a vote before the existing surface transportation authorization expires.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman on Tuesday argued that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan removed “eyes and ears on the ground” that helped keep Afghanistan from being used as a springboard for terrorist attacks against the United States, and he asked homeland security officials testifying before a Senate committee whether the U.S. was more or less safe after leaving Afghanistan.
Ohio’s Portman, who is the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, also questioned witnesses at his committee on whether departing from Afghanistan sped up the ability of terrorists who are based there to pose a threat in the United States. He didn’t get much of an answer.
National Counterterrorism Center director Christine Abizaid told Portman that monitoring terrorist groups in Afghanistan is a top priority for her agency, and it will “monitor and assess whether that will happen faster than we predicted.” “Obviously, we are concerned about what the future holds,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Portman in response to a similar question.
While Portman said the United States has a moral responsibility to welcome Afghan evacuees who assisted the United States during its time in their country, he questioned how refugees who came to the United States from Afghanistan are vetted to ensure that they aren’t security threats and why they’re allowed to “walk off military bases” after they arrive in the United States.
“We need to know who these folks are,” said Portman, noting that the U.S. embassy was evacuated before many of the immigrants left, so nobody was available to screen them. “How can we vet people?” Portman continued. “Are you going to call the Taliban government?”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said evacuees who weren’t American citizens, lawful permanent residents of the United States or special immigrant visa holders were largely visa applicants whose paperwork wasn’t processed in time for the evacuation. He said they assisted the United States in Afghanistan and would qualify as refugees.
“We do have a robust screening and vetting process, in addition to expertise both in the transit countries and here domestically, to ensure the safety and security of the American people,” Mayorkas told Portman.
Portman also argued that U.S. asylum policies that encourage people from places like Haiti and Central America to show up at the border with children so they can be admitted should be changed because they act as a “pull factor” that encourage would-be immigrants to skirt the normal process.
He said poor conditions for immigrants from Haiti who are “living in squalor under a bridge” in Del Rio, Texas, constitute “a public health and humanitarian crisis.” He argued a chaotic situation at the border was a predictable result of the Biden administration’s abandonment of its predecessor’s border policies without putting policies in place to handle the predictable surge in attempts to enter the United States.
“The United States is a place where people want to come and live and work, and we should be doing it in a legal and orderly way,” Portman said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted he is concerned that the leader of the Haqqani terrorist network holds a key position in the Taliban’s de facto government. The comments from Wray came during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the threat landscape 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, asked about Sirajuddin Haqqani being named the Taliban’s interior minister, Wray said, “It certainly concerns me.” When asked if Haqqani is on the FBI’s most-wanted list, Wray replied, “I believe so.”
Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, asked whether there was still a $10 million reward for the arrest of Haqqani, and Wray replied, “To my knowledge, he remains on the list and the reward is still out there.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid testified too, and all three agreed that it is against U.S. national security interests for someone like Haqqani to be in the Taliban's leadership.
Numerous members of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network have received top positions in the Taliban’s “caretaker” government, including leader Sirajuddin, the “deputy emir” of the Taliban. The State Department insists the Haqqani network and the Taliban are “separate entities,” but Anas Haqqani, Sirajuddin's brother, bluntly said last month: “We are the Taliban.” Wray testified that “preventing terrorist attacks remains our top priority, both today and in the future” and that “we are certainly watching the evolving situation in Afghanistan.”
Abizaid said the Kabul terrorist attack by ISIS-K shows that “foreign terrorist groups continue to place a premium on attacks against the United States.” Thirteen U.S. service members, dozens of Afghan civilians, and others were killed in a suicide bombing perpetrated by ISIS-K outside the Kabul airport on Aug. 26. In a subsequent disastrous airstrike, the U.S. killed an Afghan aid worker and his family, initially believing the worker to be affiliated with ISIS-K.
Portman said: “I hope that we have an enhanced response to the enhanced threat and not just the kind of feckless drone strike that we saw and tragic drone strike that we saw.” Wray also told the senator he agreed that the Taliban are a terrorist organization, while Mayorkas replied, “I believe it is identified as such, senator.”
Although executive orders have dubbed the Taliban a specially designated global terrorist group, the Afghan Taliban are notably not designated a foreign terrorist group, even though their Haqqani network and al Qaeda allies are. Republican senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week pointing to Sirajuddin’s role in the Taliban government and the group's support for terrorism to argue that the U.S. should designate the Taliban a foreign terrorist group. GOP-sponsored legislation similarly calls upon the Biden administration to label the Taliban as such.
Portman asked whether the U.S. was more or less safe after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Abizaid would not provide a specific answer. “Over the years and sustained CT [counterterrorism] pressure on both groups [ISIS and al Qaeda] … has really relegated those two groups to primarily a regional threat,” Abizaid said. “Now, in the wake of our withdrawal, the question is at what point does that regional threat build to a capability and an intent that is focused externally and particularly focused on the homeland. And I would say from an intelligence community perspective that is one of our highest priorities.”
Portman then pressed her on it again, and she replied, “The CIA and DIA assessments that I’m aware of are within the range that we had assessed prior to the drawdown — one to three years.” Intelligence officials said last week that al Qaeda in Afghanistan could become a threat to the U.S. homeland within a year.
Portman pointed out that Abizaid's assessment didn't quite match the intelligence assessment, to which she said, "We’ve got to monitor and assess whether that’s going to happen faster than we had predicted otherwise."
Wray said, “Obviously we are concerned about what the future holds. Whether it’s the possibility of another safe haven. Whether it’s the possibility of ISIS-K being able to operate more freely … Whether it’s the possibility of events in Afghanistan serving as some kind of catalyst or inspiration for terrorist attacks elsewhere in the region or possibly for homegrown violent extremists.” Abizaid said in her written testimony, “Since the U.S. withdrawal, we have continued to closely monitor for any signs of terrorist plotting that targets the U.S. or our interests abroad. Over the longer term, we suspect these groups could try to take advantage of reduced counterterrorism pressure and a relatively more permissive operating environment to rebuild their capacity to carry out attacks against Western targets.”
Wray also wrote : “Al Qaeda maintains its desire to both conduct and inspire large-scale, spectacular attacks. Because continued pressure has degraded some of the group’s senior leadership, in the near term, we assess that al Qaeda is more likely to continue to focus on cultivating its international affiliates and supporting small-scale, readily achievable attacks.”