Contractors seek delay in USAID vetting system

Trade association cites “numerous ambiguities” in system aimed at ensuring foreign aid funds don’t go to groups associated with terrorism.

A prominent trade association has asked the U.S. Agency for International Development to delay implementing a system designed to deny funds to individuals or groups associated with terrorism.

The new Partner Vetting System will collect basic personal information on nongovernmental organizations, contractors and other groups and individuals with potential access to USAID funds. The data will be checked against government databases to identify potential links to terrorist organizations or activities.

The agency already has a similar program in place, but it is limited to organizations operating in the West Bank-Gaza region. The new program would require companies and organizations doing business with the agency worldwide to provide information on employees -- including name, date and place of birth, Social Security number or equivalent government-issued identification number, address and employment data.

The Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based contractors association, issued comments Monday on a July 17 Federal Register notice about the system issued by USAID. In a letter to USAID Chief Privacy Officer Philip Heneghan, PSC's senior vice president and counsel, Alan Chvotkin, asked the agency to delay introducing the program until "numerous ambiguities and inconsistencies are addressed."

Chvotkin met with USAID officials Tuesday to discuss the program and said they told him that its provisions would be applied gradually to contractors.

"It is not going to go agencywide immediately," Chvotkin said. "There will be a phase-in period as to the number of organizations covered and number of agency programs affected in locations around the world."

According to USAID's Partner Vetting System Web site, the data collected through the system is not used to populate other databases and is shared only with the Justice Department for matching purposes. The site also says USAID does not retain the information after it is checked.

Chvotkin said the individuals required to submit information will likely vary depending on contracts and the structure of organizations seeking to work under them. He said USAID wants to collect data on people directly responsible for procuring and administering USAID funds, but such individuals could range from members of a company's board of directors to its senior executives and project managers.

In his letter, Chvotkin expressed concern that the program could impose a "secret determination of eligibility" and that individuals who return a positive hit in the matching system might have no recourse to question that result -- or might not even know that they were the cause of the hit.

"What happens when that hit comes up is an area that is troubling to us because it is unstated and there is no ability to correct," Chvotkin said. "There ought to be some rights of individuals and some ability of organizations to address these positives or false positives … We've encouraged USAID to develop [a system to do this] and, before finalization, to work through these very important privacy and policy issues."

USAID did not return calls for comment Tuesday, but Chvotkin said his meeting with the agency represented "a good faith effort to reach out to affected communities …. We're satisfied the dialogue has begun and hope it continues in a meaningful way over the next few weeks and into the implementation of the program."