DHS and DoD Reports on Afghanistan Evacuations Show Need for Congressional Action
March 8, 2022
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson
During the humanitarian crisis sparked by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, the Biden administration airlifted tens of thousands of Afghans to safety. Many of the evacuees had been targeted by the Taliban specifically because they had worked in support of U.S. military efforts, and the evacuation effort was supported by a diverse network of veterans’ groups, national security leaders, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Two recent government reports on the Afghan evacuation process have clarified the need for additional congressional action.
The first is a January 28 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that provided more details on the 85,266 evacuees who were resettled from Afghanistan and their legal status in the U.S. The report found that while most of the evacuees were either eligible for refugee or Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status (provided to those at risk for working with U.S. troops), the rapid nature of the evacuation meant that almost all of the evacuees were vetted and then brought to the U.S. under a different procedure known as humanitarian parole. This means very few have a clear path to permanent status in the U.S. They are refugees, but because they came on parole, they have been provided only two years of temporary protection from deportation.
We have an obligation to provide fully vetted parolees a path to citizenship or at least clarity regarding their future in the United States. Domestic asylum and SIV processing is inadequate and heavily backlogged, and keeping these evacuees shrouded in uncertainty not only fails to meet our commitments but could potentially create a disenfranchised cohort of parolees that would serve counter to U.S. interests and national security. Congress should act now to provide a path forward for these individuals, something along the lines of an Afghan Adjustment Act.
The second report, issued February 15 by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, focused on the vetting processes and procedures that the evacuees went through before arriving in the U.S. The report detailed the scale and scrupulousness of the vetting process: It was led by DHS, which worked in coordination with the Department of Defense (DoD), the FBI, the U.S. Army and the intelligence community on biometric enrollment, screening, and vetting. The report states that each and every evacuee was given a unique number and enrolled into either the Automated Targeting System (under Customs and Border Protection) or the biometric Automated Toolset System (DoD).
All of this data was sent to the National Targeting Center (under CBP), checked against DHS’s IDENT database, and then passed to the National Counterterrorism Center to cross-check against the FBI’s classified Terrorist Screening Data base and the Terrorist Identities DataMart databases.
However, the report also stated that the DoD’s National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) had conducted an additional self-initiated review of the 80,000 evacuees, flagging approximately 50 individuals with derogatory information that “indicate potentially significant security concerns.” The report does not make clear the exact nature of those flags or whether these individuals have since been identified or pulled into additional screenings. It is disappointing to learn of any breakdown in the screening process between intelligence and defense agencies: The U.S. vetting system, and specifically the National Counterterrorism Center, was created to prevent such bureaucratic oversights from occurring.
But this news does not demand an overreaction. It is highly unlikely that a terrorist boarded a plane in the midst of such a crisis with a plan to conduct an attack in the United States — that would mean passing initial checks at the Kabul airport and then submitting to numerous rounds of biometric vetting and checks from CBP, DoD, FBI, and the intelligence community that are far more involved than a typical tourist or immigration visa. It is also notable that these individuals will not be able to easily move around or stay in the U.S. without additional immigration status.
Still, it is critical that the administration provide more information about the individuals who were flagged and whether they have been found, re-vetted, and pulled into additional screenings.
In light of both the DHS and DoD reports, further action is now required and demands our urgent and bipartisan attention. Specifically, the Council on National Security and Immigration (CNSI) calls for immediate legislative action that would provide both stability for parolees who face an uncertain future and assurance that biometric and biographic data has been collected and checked against all available databases. An Afghan Adjustment Act could and should do both, and it’s time for Congress to get it done.