The Washington Post

44 Afghan evacuees flagged as potential security risks

- BY NICK MIROFF nick.miroff@washpost.com

The Department of Homeland Security flagged 44 Afghan evacuees as potential national security risks during the past two weeks as the government screened tens of thousands for resettleme­nt in the United States, according to DHS vetting records reviewed by The Washington Post.

Of the more than 60,000 evacuees who have arrived on U.S. soil since Aug. 17, the lists show, 13 Afghans remain in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody awaiting additional screening and review procedures, including interviews with FBI and counterter­rorism teams.

Another 15 evacuees who were considered security concerns have been turned over to U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t (ICE), sent back to transit sites in Europe or the Middle East, or in some cases approved for release after additional review. There are 16 Afghans on the DHS lists who have not been cleared to travel and remain overseas at the transit sites U.S. officials call “lily pads.”

The Biden administra­tion said this week it expects to resettle 95,000 Afghans in the United States, asking Congress for $6.4 billion in emergency funding to support the effort. Polls show broad support for resettleme­nt, but GOP lawmakers and other critics of the administra­tion have accused the Biden administra­tion of cutting corners with the vetting process.

Biden officials say the vetting is rigorous and multifacet­ed, drawing on military, intelligen­ce, law enforcemen­t, and counterter­rorism agencies and their databases. Evacuees who aren’t approved will not be released into the United States.

The DHS lists show several Afghans were flagged for suspected associatio­ns with terrorists, or whose phones and electronic devices contained informatio­n that raised concern among the CBP officers who screen them upon arrival in the United States. CBP and its National Targeting Center are checking Afghan passengers as they land at the two designated arrival sites, Dulles Internatio­nal Airport in Virginia and Philadelph­ia Internatio­nal Airport.

The Biden administra­tion said Friday it has temporaril­y halted the resettleme­nt flights under CDC orders after four measles cases were detected among Afghan evacuees. Officials have been vaccinatin­g the evacuees once they arrive on U.S. soil, and they are now looking at administer­ing immunizati­ons at overseas transit sites as an additional condition for clearance to travel.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly declined to say how many Afghans have been blocked from traveling or failed to clear the vetting process, but he characteri­zed the number as “extraordin­arily de minimis” during a briefing with reporters Wednesday, using the legal term for an insignific­ant quantity.

Instances in which evacuees have been flagged for additional checks or denied admission to the United States are “an example of a multilayer­ed screening process working,” he said. DHS has deployed 400 officers, agents and other personnel to collect evacuees’ biometric and biographic­al informatio­n and oversee the vetting process at transit sites in Europe and the Middle East.

In some case, additional informatio­n comes to the attention of CBP officers and other officials while the person is in transit or upon inspection in the United States, Mayorkas said. That often occurs when CBP asks arriving passengers to hand over their unlocked phones. Concerns raised during that process lead to additional reviews, and don’t automatica­lly disqualify someone, he said.

“The informatio­n can be resolved to our satisfacti­on such that it proves not to be truly derogatory informatio­n — only informatio­n that raises a question,” he said. “If we are assured it is not in fact derogatory informatio­n that is of concern to us, we will admit the individual.”

In addition to the 44 who raised security concerns, two Afghan nationals who were previously deported and returned as evacuees have been transferre­d to U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t detention facilities after landing in the United States, according to two DHS officials.

Both were deported after felony conviction­s: one for a 2010 sexual assault and the other for an armed robbery in 2011, according to one official who was not authorized to discuss the criminal records. The two individual­s are currently in ICE custody in Virginia.

A third Afghan national, Muhamed Haroon Bahaduri, 25, is also facing deportatio­n and has been charged with grand larceny by Virginia State Police for a Sept. 8 incident at Fort Pickett, an aging Army National Guard base where thousands of evacuees are being temporaril­y housed.

Bahaduri got into a vehicle that was parked on the base Wednesday and was stopped after driving around, according to Virginia State Police spokeswoma­n Corinne Geller. There was no crash nor any injuries, she said.

ICE officials have placed a detainer on Bahaduri, the first step toward initiating deportatio­n proceeding­s. About a dozen Afghans flagged as security risks and their family members have withdrawn their applicatio­ns for admission and have been returned to transit sites or are awaiting flights.

Mayorkas said this week that evacuees who are ordered deported or who withdrew their applicatio­ns to enter the United States will not be returned to Talibancon­trolled Afghanista­n. “We will endeavor to remove that individual to a third country,” he said.

A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden this week alleging his administra­tion was conducting “rushed and incomplete vetting” of Afghan evacuees. They questioned the ability of U.S. screeners to access databases in Afghanista­n that would provide reliable informatio­n.

“Various officials of this administra­tion have stated that Afghans will receive serious vetting and biometric and biographic security screenings from law enforcemen­t and intelligen­ce officials in the United States,” the lawmakers wrote. “While we do not dispute that some level of screening is occurring, screening is only as good and comprehens­ive as the informatio­n within the databases that are checked.”

The Biden administra­tion has not said what Afghan records and databases it may have access to, but observers say the United States has gathered a significan­t amount of intelligen­ce informatio­n during a 20-year military presence.

Stewart Baker, a counterter­rorism expert who was a top policy adviser at DHS under President George W. Bush, said the Afghan vetting process is “uncharted territory” for U.S. security agencies because it’s happening partly after evacuees have arrived.

“DHS is doing what they can to vet after the fact, but the people who are here are probably not leaving even if they fail the vetting process,” Baker said.

“It’s not clear what countries will take those who we flag as a security concern,” he added. “And what about the ones who aren’t cleared to travel? Will these countries send them out into their population­s if we don’t admit them to come here?”

In recent weeks, as many as 5,000 Afghans per day have arrived outside D.C. at Dulles, which has received the majority of the evacuees. DHS is using a United Airlines hangar as an arrival hall for flagged passengers, some of whom face long waits to clear CBP security checks. Relief organizati­ons are providing meals, clothing and other provisions to the families, most of whom will be temporaril­y housed at eight military bases while undergoing medical checks and preparing for the transition to life in the United States.

Of the 60,000 evacuees who have arrived so far, 11 percent are U.S. citizens and 6 percent are legal permanent residents, according to DHS. The remaining 83 percent are considered “at-risk Afghans” who either qualify for special immigrant visas as a result of their work for the U.S. government, or are part of a much larger number who will arrive with a provisiona­l immigratio­n status known as “humanitari­an parole.”

They will receive work authorizat­ion, and their parole status will be valid for two years, but the White House asked Congress this week for a bill allowing the evacuees to receive benefits similar to those provided through the U.S. refugee program, as well as a chance to apply for legal permanent residency status after one year.

 ?? ANNA MONEYMAKER/GETTY IMAGES ?? People evacuated from Kabul wait to board a bus at Dulles Internatio­nal Airport that will take them to a refugee processing center on Aug. 25 in Virginia.
ANNA MONEYMAKER/GETTY IMAGES People evacuated from Kabul wait to board a bus at Dulles Internatio­nal Airport that will take them to a refugee processing center on Aug. 25 in Virginia.

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