DoD Watchdog Issues Chilling Indictment of Afghan Vetting

‘The United States faces potential security risks.’

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 28, 2022

On February 15, the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General’s (IG’s) Office issued its “Evaluation of the Screening of Displaced Persons from Afghanistan”, detailing the IG’s assessment of the Biden administration’s effort to screen, vet, and transport tens of thousands of Afghan nationals to the United States during and following the end of U.S. involvement in that country. It is a chilling indictment of vetting failures.

Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan Nationals. In August, my colleague Nayla Rush detailed, at length, the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) available to Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S. government in the country, and about the unique refugee access accorded to U.S.-affiliated Afghans who are not eligible for SIVs.

Briefly, however, there are three special statuses under which Afghans who worked with U.S. forces may immigrate here:

  • SIV for Afghan translators/interpreters, or the “Translators program”;
  • SIV for Afghan nationals who were employed by/on behalf of the U.S. government, or the “Allies program”; and
  • Direct Access P-2 Program under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for U.S.-affiliated Afghans who are not eligible for an SIV.

Timeline of Afghan Evacuations. In discussing the U.S. wind-down from military operations on July 8, President Biden pledged that he would honor commitments to Afghan nationals who had assisted American efforts during our two-decade-plus presence in the country: “Our message to those women and men is clear. ... There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.”

Subsequently, on July 14, Biden announced “Operation Allies Refuge”, to relocate Afghan nationals and their immediate families who qualify for SIV status. Directly thereafter, the State Department activated a task force to coordinate efforts to bring applicants qualified for SIVs to the United States after vetting.

That effort was “overcome by events” as they say in D.C. when, in August, Taliban forces gained control of ever-larger swathes of Afghan territory.

On August 12, the U.S. government announced it would be sending 3,000 combat troops (soon boosted to 5,000) to the country to evacuate diplomats, civilians, and Afghans who had assisted U.S. efforts. That evacuation quickly turned chaotic as, by August 13, Taliban forces overran Kandahar and Herat — Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities — and on August 15, reached the capital, Kabul.

The last U.S. troops left the country on August 30, by which point the United States had evacuated 124,000 individuals, including around 6,000 U.S. citizens, from Kabul.

The Screening and Vetting Process. On August 29, the president directed DHS to lead and coordinate the evacuation process, captioned “Operation Allies Welcome”. DHS stood up a unified coordination group (UCG) to head up that effort. As DHS’s website explains:

The UCG reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security and coordinates the implementation of a broad range of services, including initial processing, COVID-19 testing, isolation of COVID-positive individuals, vaccinations, additional medical services, and screening and support for individuals who are neither U.S. citizens nor lawful permanent residents.

DoD has transported SIV applicants and other Afghan evacuees “to intermediate staging bases”, called “lily pads”. Those lily pads are scattered across the globe, including in the Middle East and Europe, and operate as “emergency processing centers”. Once screened, those individuals are then transported to one of eight “safe havens” at military bases throughout the United States.

Citizens and green card holders are then released into the United States, while aliens without status are assisted by USCIS in the preparation of immigration and employment authorization applications.

Screening and Vetting Concerns. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised that all those Afghans resettled in the United States would be thoroughly screened through a “multi-layered, multi-agency screening and vetting process” to ensure that those who posed a danger to the national security would not make it in.

By October, however, reports had surfaced suggesting that certain steps in the vetting process for Afghan evacuees, from in-person interviews to document verification, had been “skipped or delayed”.

Afghans without paperwork or biometric or biographic identification were allegedly “allowed to give their own names and dates of birth for entry into U.S. government tracking systems”, while the screenings that did occur “didn’t include an assessment of the individual’s ties to the U.S.”

In mid-December, in response to reports that “virtually none of the 82,000 individuals flown from Afghanistan to the United States were properly vetted”, congressional Republicans demanded answers from Mayorkas about the screening and vetting process.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, stated that his staff, thanks to “in-person oversight of the vetting operations” had determined that “the vetting and screening process consisted of nothing more than ‘providing fingerprints and your name and many times, a facial image.’”

A statutorily required report on the vetting process for Afghan refugees, due on September 30, still had not arrived by late December, raising new concerns. In response to inquiries from The Hill at that time, a DHS spokesperson replied: “As a reminder, all Afghans were vetted prior to arrival and underwent additional screening at the Port of Entry.”

The DoD IG’s Assessment. Which brings me to the DoD IG’s report.

The Defense Department’s watchdog determined that the Afghan parolees were not vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) — which is under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — using all the data that DoD had at is disposal prior to their relocation to safe havens in the United States. Explaining why is complicated.

Half of the Afghan evacuees were enrolled by CBP at lily pads abroad, and their information was stored in the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) system and compared against the information in that system. The other half were enrolled by DoD, and their information was stored in and screened against that department’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS).

“Both the DoD and the CBP enrollment information was then sent to the CBP National Targeting Center”, which forwarded the information to the NCTC where it was checked against FBI terrorist databases to see whether there was any derogatory information or if additional scrutiny was required.

Once these checks were completed, the results were sent to CBP and to DoD’s National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC). NGIC notified operators at air departure points abroad when lists of approved evacuees were ready so that they could create flight manifests, and it was CBP’s job to tell airports in the United States that the parolees were coming.

The problem as identified by the DoD IG was that the DHS IDENT system — against which half of those parolees were checked — contained some, but not all, the information that was in ABIS.

Why? DoD agreements with unnamed “foreign partners” prohibit the sharing of certain information in the DoD ABIS system outside of DoD.

Further, the report explains, DHS IDENT “does not include DoD tactical data”, including “tactical patrol reports from ground units, tactical operation debriefings, after‑action reports, detention operations, and fingerprints on improvised explosive device”. When it comes to vetting evacuees from a country that has been, more or less, in a state of war since late 2001, such data is extremely relevant and salient.

At some point, somebody realized this was a problem, and on September 30, NGIC entered into an agreement with DHS to access CBP’s records to complete the review. “However, this agreement was set to expire on December 27, 2021, and NGIC personnel estimated that they would not be able to screen all Afghan evacuees” in the United States “against the DoD’s ABIS database by this date”.

Specifically, as of December 13, NGIC personnel had reviewed just 58,455 of the identities of the 80,404 Afghan evacuees it had received. For reasons that are unclear, NGIC had been required to purge all the identities it received by December 27, which would have made completing the task thereafter impossible.

That was plainly a problem, because NGIC used that information to identify “Afghans with derogatory information from the DoD ABIS database who were already in the United States”.

Once they identified those individuals, NGIC created “informal procedures” to send the information to DoD and other “Interagency stakeholders”, in the “expectation that the base commanders” in the safe havens would try to figure out if the Afghans in question were still there.

Some of the Afghan evacuees about whom derogatory information had been found could not be located, either because their data had not been uploaded or devices had not been properly maintained. The IG’s report stated that as of September 17, NGIC had identified 31 Afghans who had made it to the United States, and for whom NGIC had discovered derogatory information. “Of those 31, only 3 could be located.”

By November 2, NGIC “had identified 50 Afghan personnel in the United States with information in DoD records that would indicate potentially significant security concerns”.

I quote that entire passage for two reasons. First, it is unclear what the IG report, which uses a lot of jargon and acronyms but is rather specific, means by “Afghan personnel”. Does that mean officials of the Afghan government, or Afghans who had worked for the United States, or all evacuees? No idea.

Second, however, that passage links to a rather frightening footnote: “Significant security concerns include individuals whose latent fingerprints have been found on improvised explosive devices and known or suspected terrorists and for which the NGIC sends derogatory information notifications to appropriate DoD personnel.” (Emphasis added.)

Fifty out of 80,000-plus might not seem like a large number (although of course, it is only an interim result), but even one terrorist is one too many. Further, a review of the report as a whole reveals that there were large numbers of Afghan evacuees (possibly most) who had no connection to the United States before they were brought to those foreign lily pads and sent on to safe havens in this country.

In what is likely the key passage from that report, the DoD IG dryly noted:

As a result of the NCTC not vetting Afghan evacuees against all available data, the United States faces potential security risks if individuals with derogatory information are allowed to stay in the country. In addition, the U.S. Government could mistakenly grant SIV or parolee status to ineligible Afghan evacuees with derogatory information gathered from the DoD ABIS database.

Conclusions. The entire Afghan evacuation program was implemented in a slapdash manner and, as the IG report reveals, poorly implemented. Despite sunny assertions by administration officials, there were serious flaws in the screening and vetting process for Afghan evacuees, and even when derogatory information was uncovered, there was no formal system by which the subjects could be identified and stopped.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (on which I worked), passed in response to intelligence failures identified by the 9/11 Commission, created the DNI specifically to prevent the sort of “stovepiping” of intelligence information by individual departments that this IG report detailed. Seventeen years after the fact, there is plainly still work to be done.

The “potential security risks” created by the vetting failures in the IG report still exist. That report is unclassified, and therefore there is no way to determine what derogatory information prompted NGIC to flag the 50 Afghan evacuees it had identified as of November 2, but it does not appear that any of the missing ones had been found by the time that the IG issued the report.

Legal and official immigration channels exist for a reason — to keep inadmissible aliens, and in particular, aliens who are inadmissible on criminal grounds out of the United States. In bypassing those official immigration channels and simply evacuating tens of thousands of Afghans to lily pads and safe havens, the Biden administration has created an unacceptable risk for the American people.

Perhaps, Afghans who were eligible for SIV status could have been transported to intermediate staging bases abroad, where they should have remained until their applications were adjudicated. Like hundreds of thousands of their countrymen, however, the remaining evacuees should have been placed in camps near Afghanistan for regular refugee processing.

As is, they are now eligible for benefits and opportunities their comrades back home will likely never receive.