GOP senators say hundreds of Afghan evacuees reached U.S. without any vetting

Hundreds of Afghan evacuees reached the U.S. despite appearing on a Defense Department watch list or a crucial counterterrorism database, Republican senators charged Thursday, citing the claims of a whistleblower.

Sens. Josh Hawley and Ron Johnson said they’ve been told that 324 Afghans reached the U.S. despite appearing on the Defense Department’s Biometrically Enabled Watchlist (BEWL). 

And 65 Afghans who made it to American soil also showed in the department’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) — up from 50 who were reported to have been flagged by an inspector general in February.

The senators also said they’ve been told political appointees ordered military officers to “cut corners” on fingerprint checks for the evacuees in order to rush them into the U.S., and Homeland Security employees have been told to delete some biometric data when they personally believed it was out of date.

“This information may show the Biden administration’s failure to vet those evacuated from Afghanistan was even worse than the public was led to believe,” the two senators said in a letter to Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Donnell.

Mr. O’Donnell first flagged the security lapses in a report in February, saying evacuees were brought out of Afghanistan to overseas staging points and then into the U.S. without ever being run through ABIS. 

When the identities were later checked, investigators found at least 50 who reached the U.S. as of last November. Most were released before they were flagged, and when authorities initially went looking for them, only a few could be located, the inspector general reported.

Mr. Hawley and Mr. Johnson say they’ve now been told the number of Afghan evacuees who triggered ABIS hits is up to 65.

Meanwhile, a different Pentagon database, the BEWL, flagged a total of 324 Afghan evacuees who reached the U.S. as potential security risks.

The senators said the two lists are separate, but there may be some overlap between those who appeared in ABIS and those flagged in BEWL.

They asked Mr. O’Donnell to open a new investigation into what happened.

Mr. Hawley confronted FBI Director Christopher Wray with the whistleblower allegations at a hearing Thursday.

Mr. Wray said he wasn’t familiar with the specific numbers that Mr. Hawley was citing, but said his agents are investigating “a number of individuals” from the airlift.

“I know there have been a number of interviews of individuals who came. Lots of interviews, frankly, of individuals who came as part of the evacuation. I think there have been a number of disruptions, whether — how many of those have been arrests under what charges and so forth, that I’d have to get back to [you] on,” he told the senator.

He said there is reason to be worried about the evacuation operation.

“This was a massive number of people to be vetting in an extraordinarily short period of time. And that, in my view, inevitably raises concerns,” he said.

Some 77,000 Afghans were brought to the U.S. during last summer’s chaotic airlift as the Biden administration withdrew the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It was billed as a chance to rescue those who’d assisted the 20-year American war effort, but a majority of those actually flown out of Kabul did not, in fact, qualify for the special visa for war allies.

Among the rest were average citizens who managed to make it to the airport, usually with the Taliban’s blessing.

They were brought to camps in third countries where they were initially vetted, then brought to camps at military installations in the U.S. where they were processed and released into communities.

Homeland Security, which oversaw the welcoming operation, insisted the vetting was complete. But the department has admitted few of the Afghans were interviewed in person before reaching the U.S.

Mr. Hawley, Missouri Republican, and Mr. Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, say they’ve been told even fingerprint checks were rushed, with political appointees at the Pentagon and the National Security Council ordering vetters not to bother taking all 10 fingerprints.

The findings about database checks have been the most shocking revelation, with Mr. O’Donnell saying because of bureaucratic issues, Homeland Security didn’t have access to the ABIS database. That contains information gleaned from the battlefield during the 20-year war effort, such as fingerprints taken off explosive devices, which could identify potential bad actors.

The inspector general’s office confirmed Thursday that Mr. O’Donnell has received the letter and is reviewing it, but did not comment on the whistleblower claims.

The Washington Times has reached out to Homeland Security for a response. When Mr. O’Donnell’s initial report came out, Homeland Security said it disagreed with the findings, but did not explain its objections.

Joseph Clark contributed to this story.

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