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Focus Of Senate Intelligence Delegation Europe Visit Underscored By Attacks


People in Brussels and across Europe are struggling to make sense of yesterday's attacks. And the intelligence community is facing a difficult question. How big a failure was this after knowing for some time that Brussels could be targeted? Coincidentally, a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee delegation is in Europe this week. And Angus King is on the trip. He's an independent senator from Maine. He spoke to us by satellite phone from the delegation's plane. And he said Belgium may have been especially vulnerable to an attack, which could put Europe at risk.

ANGUS KING: Any country's security is only as strong as the weakest link. So if you have a country that has not a terribly strong security and intelligence and law enforcement situation, that can become a haven.

GREENE: And so Senator King said European countries are facing a difficult choice, whether to tighten or close borders with other European countries.

KING: We were in Poland earlier this week, and they have two big events coming up this summer. And in fact, they are going to close off their border during the month of July just because of the large influx of people that they're not going to be able to control. It's something they definitely don't want to do. It's a real dilemma for these countries because the open borders has been a boon to European travel and business. The other piece, David, that we have to worry about is the Visa Waiver Program, where we have a Visa Waiver Program with many of these Central and Western European countries. And if they aren't sharing their intelligence and watch-lists with us, that throws that program into high relief. I think the number is something like 20 million passages under the Visa Waiver Program last year. So that's where we really have to focus, particularly if we can't have full confidence in the intelligence capacity of the sending countries.


Are you talking about the possibility of requiring visas for even Europeans coming to the United States?

KING: Well, when you say even Europeans, it means, as I mentioned, it could be someone from any of these countries. And the one with the weak link can get on a plane. I'm not suggesting that we would end the Visa Waiver Program. But I am suggesting that it bears a great deal of scrutiny. Part of that, it seems to me, is being very straightforward with the Europeans. If you want to enjoy the benefits of the Visa Waiver Program, you're going to have to do a better job of knowing who these travelers are so that we have access to their watch-lists. David, we are asymmetrically vulnerable because we're asymmetrically free. And that's really the dilemma that Western countries are facing.

GREENE: But what exactly do you mean by that?

KING: Well, what I mean is that we're open societies that allow people to travel freely across borders - Visa Waiver Programs, freedom of assembly. We have security measures. But they're not overbearing. And all of the openness of our society creates vulnerability for people who are bent on mayhem.

GREENE: Well, Senator, if a group like ISIS and terrorists are forcing countries like the United States to reconsider its openness - to reconsider whether visas should be required for people coming from countries we're friendly with, if they're forcing Europe to consider closing off borders, I mean, have they won, in a way?

KING: Well, certainly that's part of what they want to do. Terrorism is all about making us modify our activities in order to combat it. And it's - we hope that we can find the right balance. I mean, we have, for example, much more severe restrictions at our airports than we ever did before Sept. 11. And people have adjusted to that. So if you want to count that as a minor victory for the terrorists, I suppose that was the way it would be characterized. But this is the constant balance that has to be struck between security and liberty.

GREENE: Sad for Americans and others to probably hear you talk about even giving a group like ISIS credit for even the smallest victories.

KING: Well, I don't call it a victory. I just call it realism. We've got to be realistic about the threats that we face. And we've all been willing to put up with a little extra aggravation at the airport and having our bags X-rayed in order to be more secure. But clearly, we don't want to change who we are. That would be a victory. And we're not going to do that. I think one of the - one of the most important messages is that we can't be intimidated by this. We've got to go about our lives and travel and shop and work and all of those things without being intimidated. But on the other hand, we have to be diligent about confronting the threats that we face.

GREENE: All right. Senator King, thank you so much for talking to us, and safe travels to you. We appreciate it.

KING: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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