U.S. Races to Vet Afghans for Security Risks as Evacuations Rise
(Bloomberg) -- U.S. agencies are rushing to complete security vetting of thousands of Afghanistan citizens who are in line to be relocated to the U.S., as some lawmakers raise alarms about the risk that terrorists and criminals could slip through.
The massive, rushed and chaotic evacuation effort from the airport in Kabul means that thousands of people are being put on planes before their background vetting is complete. It includes many who already had applied for “special immigrant visas” after working with U.S. soldiers and diplomats as well as others who didn’t.
U.S. agencies are doing security screening while flights are in the air and when refugees arrive at temporary locations before being transferred to the U.S., including Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain and Germany.
“Intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals are conducting screening and security vetting for all SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans before they are allowed into the United States,” the State Department said in a statement Monday. “We are surging resources to evaluate each case and process these as efficiently as possible to protect homeland security.”
U.S. officials declined to say on Monday how many, if any, Afghans have been flagged for security concerns in the vetting process or denied entry to the U.S. On the flip side, however, the Biden administration is facing mounting pressure from veterans and refugee advocates to get as many Afghans out of Kabul as quickly as possible, saying they can be vetted once they get to a safe location.
The State Department is getting help at the Kabul’s airport from members of the military. Outside Afghanistan, the Department of Homeland Security has deployed personnel from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration to Bahrain, Germany, Kuwait and Qatar to conduct processing and vetting of Afghans, said DHS spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández.
The goal is to bring Afghans to the U.S. “who have worked for and on behalf of the United States and other eligible vulnerable Afghans in coordination with Department of Defense and Department of State,” Fernández Hernández said in a statement.
Customs and border agents, for example, are working alongside the FBI and other agencies to conduct the vetting, which includes biometric and biographic screening, the department said. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also has dedicated resources, including translation services, to expedite the processing of pending petitions and applications by Afghan nationals.
In a ramp-up from efforts the previous week, about 16,000 people were flown out of Kabul in 24 hours using both military and commercial charter flights, Army Major General William Taylor told reporters Monday. Five flights carrying Afghan refugees arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport while they wait to be transferred to U.S. military bases, he added.
Republican Senator Joni Ernst blamed President Joe Biden for creating a chaotic vetting process when the U.S. embassy in Kabul closed. “We want to welcome those that are fully vetted,” Ernst of Iowa said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “That is extremely important that we make sure they are vetted before they touch down on American soil.”
The risk was underscored by the U.K.’s armed forces minister. James Heappey told BBC Radio that people in Kabul who are on his country’s no-fly list have tried to get on British evacuation flights.
“There are people trying to take advantage of this process to get into the U.K. to cause us harm,” he said.
In the U.S., the State Department, DHS and the FBI are leading the screening process. If there are ongoing security concerns with any refugees who are eventually resettled inside the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation or state and local law enforcement agencies might have to take steps to keep tabs on them, such as doing occasional interviews.
“The FBI supports the U.S. government’s interagency efforts on immigration and refugee admittance by serving as one of the agencies that reviews information associated with refugee and immigrant applicants in order to identify potential national security and public safety concerns,” the FBI said in a statement.
Biden told reporters on Sunday that anyone arriving in the U.S. will have undergone a background check, though it’s not clear whether American authorities have as much access to information as they did when the U.S. embassy in Kabul was up and running.
“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. “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 declined to describe the vetting process for Afghans who aren’t applicants for special immigrant visas, or how many Afghans might ultimately be brought to the U.S.
“Because of our focus on executing one of the biggest airlifts in history, we cannot give an exact picture of processing times,” the department said in a statement. “We are doing all of this in support of our primary goal: to bring to safety as many people as we can, as quickly as we can, for as long as we can.”
Nor have officials said what would happen to those who are taken to other countries and then aren’t cleared in the screening process. On Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price would say only that those who aren’t approved would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
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