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The big contrasts between Clinton and Trump’s plans to prevent terrorism

'These people need to have consequences, big consequences.'


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Jun 26, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 1:23 pm CDT

Americans have consistently rated terrorism as one of the top issues they want the government to deal with. While Americans are more likely to die in a furniture-related accident than be killed by terrorism, millions of Americans have carried around terrorism fears in the back of their minds since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Nevertheless, ever since Twin Towers fell, politicians running for office have been expected to have comprehensive plans for stopping those types of terrorist attacks before they happen. The 2016 presumptive presidential nominees, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, are of course no exception.

In terms of stopping terrorist attacks, Trump and Clinton are worlds apart. Trump views anti-terror strategy in terms of his larger, nativist worldview: Keep the bad people, and everyone who resembles them, out of the country by whatever means necessary. Clinton largely rejects that framework in favor of a technocratic strategy of using tools to discover terrorist plots before they’re carried out and managing perceptions of the U.S. across Muslim communities to give potential terrorists fewer reasons to attack Americans in the first place.

All in all, how do Trump and Clinton stack up on their domestic anti-terror strategies?


The core of Trump’s plan to prevent terrorism in the U.S. is preventing people he believes may be, due to their race or religion, likely to commit acts of terrorism. Even though the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorist acts committed in recent decades have been related to right-wing extremism rather than radical Islamic fundamentalism, Trump’s most high-profile anti-terror proposal involves a “total and complete shutdown” of all Muslims entering the United States “until we can figure out what is going on.”

“Without looking at various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension,” Trump said in a statement released late last year. “Where this hatred comes from and why, we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

While politicians on both sides of the aisle slammed Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, he hasn’t relented—although he did say he would make an exception for London’s newly elected Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Much of the focus of Trump’s Muslim ban has centered around preventing any of the millions of refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War from settling in the United States. Whereas the U.S. has typically absorbed a significant amount of the world’s post-World War II refugee population, the country has only taken a very small percentage of people fleeing violence in Syria. Those numbers are expected to grow significantly, as President Barack Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 new Syrian refugees. Clinton has backed Obama’s plan, and Trump has slammed that support as something that would make America less safe.

In the wake of the tragic June 12 shooting in an Orlando gay nightclub, carried out by a U.S. citizen whose father was an immigrant from Afghanistan, Trump gave a speech attacking Clinton for agreeing with his position that all immigration from predominantly Muslim countries should be halted, falsely asserting there is no screening process for vetting immigrants. “The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why she believes immigration from these dangerous countries should be increased without any effective system to really screen,” Trump said. “We’re not screening people.”

For Trump, shuttering the nation’s boarders to Muslims isn’t sufficient. He has also advocated the government forcibly closing mosques spreading anti-American ideology if they are “loaded for bear.”

In a speech shortly after the Orlando attack, Trump threatened American Muslim communities he said aren’t not doing enough to report people who may be in the process of radicalization, citing the Dec. 2, 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, that was carried out by two Islamic State sympathizers. “The Muslims have to work with us. … They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But they didn’t work with us,” he said. “We need to make sure that everyone who knew something but didn’t tell us is brought to justice. … These people need to have consequences, big consequences.”

While Trump has repeated calls for clamping down on immigration and increased surveillance of Muslim communities, he’s been less vocal about requiring all Muslims in the United States to register into a centralized database, even though he said it was an idea he was open to considering. Last November, Trump responded to a question from a reporter saying he was open to the idea; but, in subsequent interviews, he didn’t actively push it as a concrete policy proposal.

When it comes to treatment of terror suspects held by the United States, Trump’s philosophy is similar to similar to his views about combating ISIS abroad: There should be no limits to how America treats the people it has in captivity.

Trump has repeatedly advocated the use of torture practices like waterboarding, saying, “we have to beat the savages,” brushing aside not only concerns about the human rights of detainees but also criticisms about the effectiveness of torture as a technique for extracting useful and accurate information.

When the Senate released a report on the CIA‘s discontinued “enhanced interrogation” program in 2014, it found torture techniques did not produce actionable intelligence. What intelligence they did derive was, the report found, frequently “fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence” and agency interrogators “assessed that the most effective method for acquiring intelligence from detainees, including from detainees the CIA considered to be the most ‘high-value,’ was to confront the detainees with information already acquired by the intelligence community,” rather than through torture.

Trump has countered arguments about torture being ineffective by repeatedly telling a story, widely believed to a complete fabrication, of U.S. Gen. John Pershing massacring Muslim insurrectionist in the Philippines using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.

“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump said. “And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood—you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: ‘You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”

According former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Trump knew the story wasn’t true but told it anyway. “It’s not about that,” Lewandowski told the Washington Post. “Look, it’s an analogy.”



Whereas Trump has centered his entire domestic anti-terror agenda to around an opposition immigration, Clinton has largely rejected arguments that allow terrorist threats to dictate U.S. immigration policy.

While most of the the Republican primary field didn’t follow Trump’s lead in calling for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States, many, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), did share Trump’s antipathy for refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war. Trump wanted to halt the resettlement all refugees coming from Syria; Cruz called for the imposition of a religious test—only the relatively small subset of Syrian Christians could be granted refugee status, and Syrian Muslims would be struck with a blanket ban.

Against all of these proposals, Clinton stood firm. “Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are,” Clinton said in mid-June. “It would be a cruel irony indeed if ISIS can force families from their homes and then also prevent them from ever finding new ones.”

Even so, Clinton did call for a stricter screening process for anyone entering the U.S. from countries where terrorism is a major issue. The current screening process for Syrian refugees, it should be noted, is likely the most rigorous for anyone coming into the U.S..

While Clinton sees blanket prohibitions to refugees antithetical to American values, her disinclination to erect major barriers in the way of Muslims entering the country is based on her general view that physical security concerns exist largely to create space for the U.S. to beat ISIS in a war of ideas. Unlike Trump, who views the U.S. in the Muslim world as largely unimportant when it comes to terrorism, Clinton often frames American actions in terms of how they will likely play in the eyes of moderate Muslims around the globe.

“When he says he wants to stop all Muslims from entering the United States, that runs counter to what I and others who have actually been in the Situation Room, making hard choices, know we have to do,” she said at a campaign event in Iowa last December. “[Trump] is supplying [ISIS] with new propaganda. … [He’s] playing right into their hands.”

Clinton made a similar argument when Trump called on her to drop out of race when she didn’t use the exact phrase “radical Islam” in the speech she gave after the Orlando massacre. “I am not going to demonize and demagogue and declare war on an entire religion. That’s just plain dangerous, and it plays into ISIS’s hand,” Clinton said during an interview on the Today Show. “I think Trump, as usual, is obsessed with name-calling.”

As far as what Clinton would proactively do to fight the threat of terrorism at home, she has been calling for an “intelligence surge” since at least late 2015. She reiterated those calls for increasing intelligence gathering capabilities in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

Details on precisely what such an intelligence surge would entail are lacking. The U.S. already spends an enormous amount of money on intelligence gathering. According to figured kept by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the total budget appropriated to the U.S. intelligence community was $67.9 billion in 2014 and is on track to be roughly the same in 2016 and 2017.

When Clinton talks about her proposed intelligence surge, she often couples the plan with talk about partnering with Silicon Valley tech firms to collect more data on potential terrorist threats. “As president, I will work with our great tech companies from Silicon Valley to Boston to step up our game,” Clinton said. “We have to [do] a better job intercepting ISIS’s communications, tracking and analyzing social media posts, and mapping jihadist networks, as well as promoting credible voices who can provide alternatives to radicalization.”

This type of cooperation between tech firms and the intelligence community isn’t new. In January, top executives from tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft met with Obama administration officials to discuss how to combat the spread of ISIS propaganda online. While tech companies have become increasingly aggressive in pushing back to defend the rights of users in the face of government data requests—most notably in the battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone used by one of the terrorists who carried out the San Bernardino shooting—those dialogues are ongoing.

Clinton has called on social networking sites to shut down accounts spreading ISIS propaganda. “We have to stop jihadists from radicalizing new recruits in person and through social media, chat rooms, and what is called the dark web,” Clinton said. “To do that, we need stronger relationships between Washington, Silicon Valley, and all of our great tech companies.”

Earlier this year, Twitter announced it had shuttered some 125,000 accounts that were flagged for spreading pro-ISIS messages.

Whereas Trump called for a boycott of Apple products when the company declined to cooperate with government demands to design a software suite that would allow government agents to bypass core iPhone security features, Clinton took a more conciliatory tone.

“We should take the concerns of law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals seriously. They have warned that impenetrable encryption may prevent them from accessing terrorist communications and preventing a future attack,” Clinton said in a speech delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “On the other hand, we know there are legitimate concerns about government intrusion, network security, and creating new vulnerabilities that bad actors can and would exploit. So we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy.”

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*First Published: Jun 26, 2016, 8:00 am CDT