Donald Trump Jr., Skittles and ISIS's Captured Syrian Passports


The latest vapid uproar of campaign 2016 involves Donald Trump Jr. posting a tweet that “Compared Syrian Refugees to Poisoned Skittles,” according to an AP headline. “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?” said the full tweet.

The political context is that Donald Trump “has advocated sharply restraining immigration and has accused opponent Hillary Clinton of advocating acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees,” as the AP story noted. “The tweet came as world leaders meeting at the United Nations on Monday approved a declaration aimed at providing a more coordinated and humane response to the global refugee crisis, among which Syrians are a major grouping.”

The furor was such that Skittles parent company Wrigley Americas felt compelled to wade in, with a spokeswoman saying, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy.”

Look, Trump Jr. seems to be an annoying jerk, but he’s raising — in the inimitable loopy fashion that the whole Trump clan is noted for — a legitimate issue. Unfortunately, because most of the media is deeply in bed with one side or the other, the analyses we’re seeing are reminiscent of a high school food fight.

Anyone who calls me anti-Muslim is an idiot who hasn’t read my work, but vetting Syrian refugees is complicated. Similar problems apply to vetting the Syrian rebels we’re arming; no one really knows who we’re giving the weapons to but it’s pretty likely that it’s not a group composed entirely of five-star individuals.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2012 Newsweek story on the topic:

“Vetting is a word we throw a lot around a lot, but actually very few people know what it really means,” said the former CIA operative, who had several postings in the Middle East for a decade after the 9/11 attacks. “It’s not like you’ve got a booth set up at a camp somewhere. What normally happens is that a case officer will identify a source who is a leader in one of the Free Syrian Army groups. And he’ll say, ‘Hey…can you come up with 200 [guys] you can trust?’ And of course they say yes—they always say yes. So Ahmed brings you a list and the details you need to do the traces,” the CIA’s word for background checks. “So you’re taking that guy’s word on the people he’s recruited. So we rely on a source whom we’ve done traces on to do the recruiting. Does that make sense?”

In terms of Syrian refugees coming to the United States, I expect most are fleeing their war-torn homeland, exactly as they claim. But there are grounds for concern.

First, the U.S. doesn’t have official contacts with the Syrian government and the U.S. embassy in Damascus is closed. Syrians seeking U.S. visas have to travel to Jordan or elsewhere.

But here’s the bigger problem. When ISIS overran Aleppo, it stole large numbers of official, Swiss-made Syrian passports. These are legally-issued passports with stamps and documentation.

What that means is that a Syrian citizen may be traveling on an official government passport or a passport stolen by ISIS. There’s no way to tell them apart and because ties to Damascus are so poor it’s difficult for consular or immigration officials to know for sure.

That doesn’t mean all Syrians should be barred at the border and shunned as terrorists, but it does suggest that the issue is not as simple as it looks in the press.


During the campaign Trump has repeatedly called for a moratorium on accepting Syrian refugees.

Trump Jr., an obnoxious jerk,

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