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Pentagon Reports Security Concerns Over Afghan Refugees

Migrant Children, Afghan

A recent Pentagon Inspector General report uncovered serious security concerns associated with some of the Afghans who entered the United States following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country late last summer. Despite significant efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies to vet the Afghan evacuees, interagency communication breakdowns allowed otherwise inadmissible persons to enter the United States.

Evacuation of Afghanistan

In the final days of the war in Afghanistan, multinational efforts were made to evacuate vulnerable Afghans from the war-torn country prior to the Taliban takeover. By mid-August of 2021, the Hamid Karzi International Airport remained the only non-Taliban-controlled route to escape the country. In the weeks that followed, several countries conducted operations to evacuate Afghans, such as the Canadian Operation AEGIS, the South Korean Operation Miracle, and the Indian Operation Devi Shakti. 

The United States also conducted a large-scale airlift, evacuating over 80,000 individuals, including U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans. In sum, over 122,000 individuals were airlifted out of the country.

Following the withdrawal, Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), reiterated the Biden Administration’s “enduring commitment” to assisting Afghan refugees who aided the U.S. war effort and those who were particularly vulnerable under Taliban rule. However, as those evacuated from Afghanistan seek to establish lives in their new homes, increasing scrutiny of the vetting procedures has been conducted to ensure those admitted to the United States are free of any security concerns.

Inspector General Report Reveals Security Lapses

On Feb. 15, 2022, the Inspector General released a report that evaluated the screening processes used for displaced persons from Afghanistan. The purpose of the report was to determine the extent to which the Department of Defense managed and tracked displaced persons from Afghanistan through biometric enrollment, screening, and vetting processes. According to the report, the analysis “found that Afghan evacuees were not vetted by the National Counter‑Terrorism Center (NCTC) using all Department of Defense data prior to arriving in CONUS.”

As of Nov. 2, 2021, intelligence officials had identified 50 Afghan personnel in the United States about whom information in Department of Defense records would indicate potentially significant security concerns. The report noted that these included individuals whose latent fingerprints had previously been identified on improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”), as well as known or suspected terrorists.

At least some Afghan evacuees who were identified as having “derogatory information” that would make them otherwise ineligible for the parolee program could not be located. Derogatory information entails security concerns that would subject the individual to additional scrutiny in the vetting process. On Sept. 17, 2021, the National Ground Intelligence Center (“NIGC”) identified 31 Afghans in the continental United States associated with derogatory information that raised security concerns. Of those Afghans, only 3 could be located. The report noted this may have been due to “informal” procedures used in locating evacuees, which led to inconsistency in the data collected. 

The report noted that it will take until March of 2022 to finalize the analytic review of the Afghan evacuees, and to date, intelligence officials have reviewed approximately 58,455 of the over 80,000 Afghans.

Sharing of Security Information Between Government Agencies

The report highlights the complex relationships among U.S. government agencies when it comes to sharing sensitive security data. The evacuation of Afghans to the United States, for example, involved the Department of Defense (“DOD”), the National Ground Intelligence Center (“NIGC”), the Department of State (“DOS”), Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”), the National Counterterrorism Center (“NCTC”), and the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), to name just a few. 

The Inspector General report further noted that the NCTC failed to utilize all DOD tactical data when vetting Afghans entering the United States. Specifically, when vetting Afghan evacuees, officials at the NCTC compared information against CBP information and not DOD tactical information, thereby missing critical security information. DOD tactical information is generally utilized in deployed environments, and contains important information such as tactical patrol reports, operation debriefings, and after-action reports, which include fingerprint data found on explosive devices. In other words, the complexities of data-sharing among U.S. government agencies allowed into the country certain Afghan evacuees who would otherwise not be allowed to enter.

The report makes many recommendations, including the development of procedures for sharing derogatory information on Afghan evacuees with the Department of Defense and with interagency stakeholders.

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