McCain, Fellow Senators Grill Intelligence Officials on ISIS During Cybersecurity Hearing

Never let it be said that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) doesn’t know how to make an entrance — or exit.

The onetime Republican presidential candidate arrived late to a homeland security committee hearing on cybersecurity threats in the Dirksen Senate office building slated to begin 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The Arizona senior senator slipped in from behind the dais as senior intelligence officials read their testimony to lawmakers and took his seat near Chairman Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.)

What McCain did then came across more like a setup for watchful cameras than a series of inquiries about security along southern U.S. borders. When his turn came to speak, he began repeatedly asking one of the witnesses, Francis Taylor, intelligence undersecretary with the Department of Homeland Security, whether he felt border security was “sufficient” at the southwest border.

After hearing Taylor say he felt it was satisfactory at least three times, McCain asked him why border security didn’t stop 30-year-old James O’Keefe — a well-known conservative activist, whom he called a journalist — from recently crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas while unconvincingly dressed to look like Osama bin Laden.

“Did something like that concern you?” The senator asked.

“Actually, sir, he was not undetected,” Taylor said. The federal official began to add that border security knew about the activist when the senator once more cut him off.

“Then why didn’t you stop him when he came across?” McCain shot back.

The undersecretary struggled to provide McCain with more information, not unusual since federal intelligence officials and lawmakers have to toe the line with classified information at open committee hearings and typically offer more during sessions closed to the public.

But McCain wouldn’t hear it.

“No, you can’t answer it because they weren’t there to stop him,” he said.

The senator went on to describe the refugee crisis on southwest U.S. borders, tersely adding, “And for you to sit there and tell me that we have the capability or now have the proper protections of our southern border, particularly in light of the urgings” from terror group ISIS for recruits to illegally enter and conduct terror in the United States, “is of great concern to the citizens of my state.”

McCain left the committee shortly afterward, well before another senior intelligence official dismissed notions that ISIS has the reach needed to perform “large-scale” operations in the United States. He didn’t return.

Ayotte: ISIS Makes ‘At Least $1 Million a Day’

McCain may have only wanted to make a point, but he was far from alone in turning a hearing on cybersecurity to ISIS on the eve of a major speech in which President Barack Obama vowed to leave “no safe haven” for the group responsible for viciously beheading two American journalists.

Most lawmakers pushed for more information about the terror group’s ability to continue financing its operations, whether it could successfully infiltrate and conduct terror operations in the United States, and if federal intelligence agencies could revoke passports for American citizens who want to join ISIS overseas.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) turned heads when she pressed officials over estimates she said she’d read that found the extremist faction “making at least $1 million a day” to carry out attacks in Iraq.

Nicholas Rasmussen, a hearing witness and deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called her claim “fair” and said the group’s financial means remain “one of our great concerns” as it fans a wave of violence across Iraq.

According to Rasmussen, ISIS continues to benefit from ransoms it extracts for the release of Western hostages and money it leaches off captured Federal Reserve holdings in occupied parts of Iraq and Syria.

Neither was far off from other reports about ISIS. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that ISIS reaped some $8 million in June after a series of successful smuggling and extortion campaigns across Iraq.

‘Hornet’s Nest’

As with McCain, some political posturing was required ahead of Obama’s address to the nation on Wednesday. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) described the violence as a “hornet’s nest in your backyard” that didn’t need “pok[ing] with a stick for three years.

I want to see a clearly articulated goal of destroying ISIS as quickly as possible so we can then maintain our defenses against other threats...
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson
“I want to see a clearly articulated goal of destroying ISIS as quickly as possible so we can then maintain our defenses against other threats that are metastasizing around the world,” Johnson added.

Ayotte later grilled the witnesses on whether intelligence officials were tracking U.S. citizens interested in leaving to join ISIS’ ranks in Iraq. CNN reported in August that U.S. officials knew of some 100 Americans already on the ground and fighting side by side with extremists.

The New Hampshire senator asked how U.S. agencies could legally apprehend their passports to prevent the new recruits from traveling abroad.

Robert Anderson, Jr., executive assistant director of a criminal and cybersecurity division at the Justice Department, said that federal agencies had dedicated an “immense amount of resources” and continues to maintain open cases on anyone the agency considered potential threats to the United States.

He praised communication between federal intelligence agencies in the matter as well as on the subject of cybersecurity.

“I’ve never seen more cooperation across agencies,” Anderson said.

Coburn adjourned the meeting shortly afterward. McCain’s chair was still empty.

Photo Source: Reuters