Biden Administration at Odds With the IG Over the Scrutiny Afghans Received Before Entering the U.S.
DHS cannot be sure it properly screened the evacuees, the IG said, raising the possibility it admitted "criminals, suspected terrorists or other nefarious actors."
The Biden administration failed to properly vet the tens of thousands of Afghans it helped evacuate from their home country after a chaotic withdrawal from the country, according to a new watchdog report that was met with significant pushback from agency officials who said the auditors misrepresented key facts.
The Homeland Security Department admitted Afghans into the United States without sufficient data to screen and inspect them, the agency’s inspector said in a report released on Wednesday, and it failed to design standardized processes for broad application. That resulted in threats to the American public, the IG said, as individuals were let into the country without assurances they were not “nefarious actors.” DHS forcefully disputed the claim, saying the IG ignored the many additional layers of scrutiny carried out by other agencies in the vetting process. Every Afghan evacuee admitted into the country, the administration said, was properly screened and cleared to do so.
The Biden administration launched two initiatives to evacuate Afghans: Operation Allies Refuge moved them from Afghanistan to U.S. military bases in foreign countries, known as “lily pad” sites, and Operation Allies Welcome, which moved them into the U.S. More than 90% of the 79,000 Afghans who entered the U.S. were admitted under the “parole” process, which designates a special legal status for individuals otherwise not admissible into the country. Determinations for entry were made at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection personnel and provided legal status for two years.
Parolees went through an initial screening at lily pad sites, where their biometric data—fingerprints and facial images—was taken. That information was then vetted to determine any potentially “derogatory” information that would prevent entry into the U.S. Once cleared, the evacuees were booked onto flights into the country, where CBP officers conducted a final inspection at the ports of entry. Some parolees were granted direct access into the country at that point, though most went to domestic military bases to receive additional assistance.
In its conversations with 130 DHS and other administration officials, the IG found CBP officers often lacked the information they needed to make determinations and the lack of any existing plan led to ad hoc decision making. Due to insufficient or incomplete documentation, the officers often estimated dates of birth. More than 11,000 parolees were documented as being born on January 1, for example, as the officers inputting the data only knew of a birth year. Some evacuees provided incomplete names, while others had incomplete travel documents.
“Preventing criminals, suspected terrorists, or other nefarious actors from entering the United States requires thorough screening and vetting,” the IG said. “CBP’s use of incomplete or inaccurate data would not have yielded positive matches from intelligence databases if the individuals had derogatory records under a different name or DOB. Therefore, DHS and CBP cannot be sure they properly screened, vetted, and inspected all evacuees.”
DHS pushed back on those concerns, noting CBP played only one part in the process and many of the gaps were filled in by other agencies. Officials repeatedly stressed the whole-of-government approach to the auditors, but the IG remained unconvinced. The investigators flagged, for example, 36,000 entries that listed the requisite travel document as a “facilitation document” as potentially insufficient. DHS said CBP officers used that designation for any document that verified a person’s identification but was not a passport, such as a driver’s license or a national ID card. The department added it suspected the IG had come to the “erroneous conclusion” that parolees had to present specific documents, such as passports.
Thirty-five Afghans boarded flights to the U.S. without ever receiving proper clearance to do so, the IG said, while 1,300 never recorded their biometric data. DHS again pushed back, saying it properly processed all of those individuals at various stages in the process. The IG cited two examples of Afghans who presented security risks but were still granted entry. One was a prisoner in Afghanistan freed by the Taliban, while the other came to the FBI’s attention after his arrival. DHS said those instances represented the process working exactly as intended, as they both cleared initial screenings but were placed into removal proceedings following “recurrent vetting.”
Still, the IG faulted DHS, saying it “paroled at least two individuals into the United States who posed a risk to national security and the safety of local communities and may have admitted or paroled more individuals of concern.”
The IG acknowledged DHS faced a time crunch to process the evacuees, due to the urgency of the evacuation and the requirements the lily pad host countries placed to quickly move Afghans through their territories. It also conceded that CBP followed its own policies in admitting parolees with limited documentation, but faulted the agency for failing to maintain a list naming all of those individuals.
In a rebuttal to the report, Jim Crumpacker, DHS’ director of the IG liaison office, said senior department leadership was “concerned with the conclusions reached in this draft report.” The IG confused terms and roles, mixed up phases of the evacuation process and refused to include input from the department, he said.
“The draft report does not adequately acknowledge, and account for, the interagency and multilayered vetting process that started overseas, continued at the U.S. port of entry and is currently ongoing with recurrent vetting,” Crumpacker said.
DHS rejected the IG’s recommendations to document and carry out extra screening of all paroled Afghans who lacked full documentation upon entering the country, noting it already is carrying out recurrent vetting for all parolees. It also said it would not create a comprehensive plan for a similar situation in the future, noting in such a circumstance it would once again have to act with urgency and tailor its response to the specifics of the initiative. Overall, the department expressed full confidence that no Afghan improperly entered the country.
“Senior DHS leadership is concerned that the OIG's draft report erroneously maintains that DHS could not demonstrate it screened, vetted, and inspected all Afghan nationals,” Crumpacker said, “despite the fact that all of these screening and vetting procedures were in place for the Afghan population.”
Joseph Cuffari, the DHS IG, is currently facing allegations that his office mishandled investigations into missing text messages from Secret Service agents in the lead up to the Jan. 6 Capitol violence in 2021 and is under a separate investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.