NOVEMBER 24, 2021 05:25 PM
BY ANNA GIARITELLI
Almost none of the 82,000 people airlifted from Kabul in August were vetted before being admitted to the United States, despite claims to the contrary from the Biden administration, according to a congressional memo summarizing interviews with federal officials who oversaw the effort at domestic and international military bases.
Senior officials across the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, and Justice described a disastrous screening and vetting process in the memo, drafted by Senate Republicans in late October.
The Biden administration failed to vet the information that tens of thousands of Afghans provided through in-person interviews and relied solely on criminal and terrorist databases to flag bad actors, according to the memo — that is, merely screening, rather than vetting, people brought to the U.S.
The administration also brought into the U.S. tens of thousands of Afghans who were not qualified. The large majority of people, approximately 75%, evacuated were not American citizens, green card holders, Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders, or applicants for the visa, three people familiar with the interviews outlined in the memo told the Washington Examiner
As of early October, just 700 of the 82,000 admitted into the U.S. were determined to hold Special Immigrant Visas, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking Republican Rob Portman of Ohio said in a Nov. 4 speech. A Special Immigration Visa, or SIV, is a special classification for foreigners granted permanent residency as a result of aiding the U.S. government during the war on terror.
President Joe Biden and top Cabinet officials repeatedly claimed over the summer and fall that the government was rescuing SIV holders and U.S. allies as the Taliban took over in August.
A senior administration official said more than 40% of the 82,000 who made it to the U.S. were allies, meaning they are eligible for the visa but had not applied. The remaining roughly 60% were not eligible for the visa.
Of the 82,000 U.S. arrivals, 4,920 were U.S. citizens, 3,280 were lawful permanent residents, and the remaining 90%, or 73,800, were Afghan nationals. DHS did not further break down how many of the 73,800 were SIV applicants or ineligible for the visa.
What the Biden administration promised
In setting a deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan, Biden pledged that anyone brought back into the U.S. would be vetted.
“Planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the United States. They’re landing at U.S. military bases and transit centers around the world,” Biden said on Aug. 22. “At these sites where they are landing, we are conducting thorough scrutiny — security screenings for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.”
The State Department issued
a statement on Aug. 23 backing up Biden’s claim, as did DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Sept. 21.
But the Senate GOP memo and the three people familiar with the interviews told the Washington Examiner
that the Biden administration violated long-standing U.S. government policies for handling refugees. The three sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media about what they had seen overseas and in the U.S.
Screening vs. vetting
Refugees are to be screened and vetted before being admitted to the U.S. through an extensive process that includes
multiple interrogations. Rather than follow the protocol, the Biden administration instructed federal law enforcement and military officials handling the evacuations and processing to adhere to less stringent standards, according to the memo.
“They created a brand new, out-of-cloth screening process just for this population. And then they told everyone, 'This is what you follow,'” the first source said in a phone call. “DOD was such a heavy part of this, and they follow orders. And so, they're like, ‘OK, here's the checklist. I'll do exactly what the checklist says — no more.’ So, that's how it happened, but it was centrally managed via DHS, the National Security Council, the White House. They said, ‘This is how we're going to do this. And we're going to depart significantly from the standard way of doing screening and vetting as we would in literally any other situation.’”
The term “screening” refers to law enforcement determining a person’s identity through oral statements, government documents, and biometrics, which can include one’s fingerprints and facial scans. Screening also refers to what initial information the law enforcement officer finds about that person when plugging his or her name into a criminal database.
Screening is the initial stage in reviewing a refugee or immigrant’s background. The three people interviewed said Afghan records were not comprehensive and made U.S. screening efforts difficult. The next step is vetting, a critical part of the process that was overlooked over and over again, sources said. Vetting refers to the in-person interview by a federal official who determines if the evacuee is who he or she claims to be and whether the person poses a national security risk to the U.S.
Vetting refugees and immigrants became an admission requirement after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but it was dropped in the case of the Afghan refugees, the memo and three officials stated.
The DHS and White House National Security Council disagreed with how the term "vetting" is defined in this article. DHS did not provide an official government definition for "vetting."
“As with any population entering the United States, DHS, in coordination with interagency vetting partners, takes multiple steps to ensure that those seeking entry do not pose a national security or public safety risk," a DHS spokesman wrote in an email.
"The rigorous, multi-layered screening and vetting process involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals from DHS and DOD, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and additional intelligence community partners. This process includes reviewing fingerprints, photos, and biographic data for every single Afghan before they are cleared to travel to the United States.”
The second source said a better option than what the Biden administration did would have been sending all of the evacuees to somewhere like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.
“They didn't want to have a third-party location to treat them like refugees because they didn't want to have to admit that even that evacuation was kind of a failure,” the same person said. “They wanted to treat them all like SIV so that way, you can get them out of sight, out of mind and not have to actually process them as refugees and admit that even your evacuation that you're taking credit for was kind of messed up.”
While the Afghans were screened against the U.S. databases, criminal background or terrorism affiliations in Afghanistan likely did not come up when cross-checked against the U.S. database because not a significant amount of information was in the system compared to what is known about U.S. residents. Because only those flagged by the system were later vetted, the large majority of the 82,000 were not vetted.
Vetting interviews “were only conducted for evacuees who had derogatory information associated with their biometrics or phone records,” the memo states.
“If someone from Afghanistan were to present themselves at our southern border, which in and of itself is a disaster, they would be flagged for further follow-up and have an interview,” the third source said. “Unfortunately, in this new system that they set up specifically for this population, the majority of these folks did not get any sort of in-person interview.”
“They didn't even really try to do any vetting,” the first person said, adding that it was not because DHS did not have qualified people to do the vetting. “We have agents and [Homeland Security Investigations]. There are people who could have worked on this, and it would have been hard and it would have taken hours and days. But they didn't even try — they just assumed a big risk because it would be less work.”
Despite the initial screening, the U.S. government is already aware of 10 instances in which Afghans who should not have been allowed in were not vetted and were flown to the U.S.
“There are at least 10 evacuees who made it past all this screening into the United States prior to the national security concerns being raised and causing them currently to be detained in federal facilities as a national security threat. That’s 10. We don’t know how many more there are,” Portman said
in a floor speech on Nov. 4.
In one case, a 20-year-old Afghan man at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin was charged
in federal court in September with a slew of sexual assault charges against a minor under 16 years of age.
No identification documents, no training in ID fraud
Many of the Afghans who came off the planes from Afghanistan, arriving at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and the Naval Station Rota in Spain, had no identification documents.
“Afghans without any identification or records were approved for travel to the United States as long as their fingerprints or other biometrics were not already in a U.S. Government database and connected to derogatory information (e.g., a known terrorist, terrorist affiliate, or criminal),” the memo states. “Federal officials relayed that few Afghans know their birthday, which has resulted in a number of evacuees’ date of birth logged as January 1.”
Some Afghans told DHS officials that they did not have documents because they had not wanted the Taliban to see their papers at checkpoints. The first official said DHS accepted whoever those without documents claimed to be. Federal officials did not list in the memo how many people did not provide identification documents. Other federal officials said in the memo that those screening the Afghans had no training in how to spot fake identification documents from Afghanistan.
“They're not experts in Afghan identifications. And so, whether you had one or didn't have one or you had one and it was fraudulent, it was fake, none of that — it didn’t matter,” the first source said.
U.S. officials created new records for Afghans who did not provide any identification documents based on what the individuals claimed. Records were input into the Department of Defense Automated Biometric Identification System and the DHS equivalent, known as IDENT. DHS maintained that the "vast majority of evacuees present some form of identification or documentation demonstrating their identity" but did not provide numbers.
"All evacuees are screened using an inter-agency vetting process regardless of identification. This encompasses screenings by various agencies and across the interagency and extends beyond reliance on any specific documentation presented by evacuees," a DHS spokesman wrote in an email. "Evacuees without identification go through this same process and provide additional identifying information to ensure appropriate screening."
The senior administration official did not deny previous media reports that hundreds of Afghans had been referred to Kosovo for additional screening. It is not clear how many were ultimately barred from traveling to the U.S. or if they were later permitted to do so.
Communications breakdown between domestic and international screeners
A major breakdown in communication between domestic and international screeners occurred over who was vetting the Afghans, and ultimately, neither group vetted them. The memo states that one federal official who worked at the Rota site believed security vetting occurred when evacuees arrived in the U.S. However, a federal official at the Fort Lee evacuee housing site in Virginia was under the impression that vetting took place before travel to the U.S., the memo states.
“There was just an absolute breakdown of any kind of coordinated homeland security approach,” said the second person. “Everyone assumed, even the career people whose jobs it is to keep us safe, we all assumed it was happening.”
“The domestic folks thought it was happening internationally, while the international folks thought it was happening domestically,” said the third person. “It was clear that there just wasn't the open communication about something as important as this.”
The lack of vetting was especially concerning to the third person given that the Taliban controlled the roads in Kabul and themselves determined who would be allowed through their checkpoints to get to the airport for evacuation.
“The folks that are going to have the easiest time getting through these checkpoints are folks that are known quantities to the Taliban who are not going to be folks that are on our side. So, the idea that everyone thought this was happening, but no one was communicating to make sure that it was, was just very, very concerning,” the same person said.
All arriving Afghans flew into Dulles International Airport outside Washington, where DHS’s Customs and Border Protection officers looked over their documents.
"If someone fails these checks while they are still overseas, they will not be permitted to board a flight to the United States," a senior administration official wrote in an email, defending CBP's screenings. "An additional inspection is conducted when each Afghan arrives at a U.S. port of entry, and a secondary inspection is conducted as the circumstances require. If, upon landing in the United States, further security vetting at the Port of Entry raises a concern about a person, CBP has the authority to not grant them entry into the United States."
The three sources said CBP officers at Dulles reverified the information they had been provided when Afghans deplaned, but they did not vet anyone in a new way.
“If there were no flags, they were immediately paroled into the United States for two years,” the memo states.
The only parole conditions that must be met before leaving the U.S. military bases are receiving vaccinations for the measles and the coronavirus and agreeing to update DHS with any change of address within 10 days. As of late October, approximately 2,000 people had departed.
U.S. officials overseas and at domestic bases were told not to inquire with the Afghans who did not have Special Immigrant Visas about whether they had worked for the U.S. or an ally during the war, despite Biden’s vow the U.S. was only rescuing allies. U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were subject to less screening than the Afghans, and no vetting. In one incident, a man who had been deported from the U.S. by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and joined the evacuees fleeing Afghanistan was admitted into the U.S. from Afghanistan and only caught later once in the country.
Amid the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops and evacuation effort, Congress passed in September a continuing resolution that gave all Afghan evacuees immediate eligibility to get a REAL ID. REAL ID was created at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks as a way to enhance security on commercial flights and in federal facilities by coming up with an ID card that would be the gold standard for ID cards nationwide. REAL ID is supposed to be issued only to Americans or lawful permanent residents with a Social Security number, proof of identity, and two proofs of residency.
The Democratic effort to pass that exception ensured that Afghans would not have to go through vetting in the U.S.
“It gives a stamp of legitimacy to a process that is not legitimate,” the first official said. “These are people that either could have potentially have had a fraudulent ID when they presented it to them because they weren't trained to know what fraud looks like, or it could be someone that had no ID and, either way, reinforcing potentially false identities.”