WASHINGTON, DC –Today, during a hearing titled: “Threats to the Homeland: Evaluating the Landscape 20 Years After 9/11,” Biden administration officials agreed with U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that the United States faces an increased threat due to the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban in charge, with United Nations blacklisted terrorists serving in its highest ranks.
Portman discussed his support for the resettlement of Afghans who stood in battle with us over the last 20 years, but he pressed for answers on the screening, vetting, and status of the vast majority of the evacuees who were paroled into the U.S. and whether they have worked with us or our allies. Portman repeated his request for a classified member briefing on the vetting and screening procedures for Afghan evacuees as soon as possible.
Excerpts from the questioning can be found below and videos can be found here and here.
Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We’ve discussed a broad array of threats already this morning, and I agree with the chairman on the necessity for us to have the information on the cyber front, which is, of course, something that continues to grow every year in terms of a threat to our homeland. We talked about domestic extremists, certainly, that is a threat as we’ve said today. I want to focus on the enhanced threat that just occurred in the past month. And that is again, the way we left Afghanistan in a chaotic, rushed way and what we’ve created in the meantime. Director Abizaid, you said in your testimony this morning the U.S. has ended its longest war, and I suppose that’s true. But in a way we haven’t, have we? I mean, the war was about terrorism and keeping Afghanistan from being a platform for terrorist attacks against the United States. What we lost a month ago was eyes and ears on the ground and the ability to do just that. We had 2,500 troops there, prior to the evacuation. We hadn’t had a single casualty, thank God, in 18 months. We have 7,500 NATO troops with us, and we had the ability to do what we do not have now. The best example of that might be what happened tragically with the drone attack, the so-called ‘Over the Horizon’ alternative that the Biden administration keeps talking about failed miserably, didn’t it? And again, not having those eyes and ears on the ground makes it harder for us to protect the homeland. So I guess in a way, we ended the longest war, but in another way, we’ve made things more dangerous. Let me ask you about that. You talked about the ISIS-K suicide bombing, as an example of a threat. Well, that happened during the evacuation. Again, we hadn’t had, thank God, a casualty in 18 months until we lost those 13 brave soldiers, sailors, and Marines. You also said in your testimony that the terrorists around the world are, ‘using individuals who have access to the U.S. to conduct attacks.’ I look at what’s going on with the evacuation and us not knowing who’s coming to this country. And that’s a statement of fact. We just don’t know. Having tried my darndest to find out from the State Department and the Department Homeland Security, it’s happening so quickly and was so chaotic, we just don’t know. So I’d ask you, Director Abizaid, is our homeland more or less safe from attack following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?”
Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Christine Abizaid: “Thank you, Senator, for the question. With respect to Afghanistan, as I mentioned, the terrorist groups that we’re most concerned about presenting a threat, both in the region but also a future external threat, is obviously one, ISIS-K, ISIS Khorasan, and two, al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s affiliate there. Now over the years and sustained CT pressure on both groups, principally al Qaeda, but given ISIS-K’s more recent arrival on the scene, also significant terrorist pressure there, has really relegated those two groups to primarily a regional threat. Now, in the wake of our withdrawal, the question is, at what point does that regional threat build to a capability and intent that is focused externally and particularly focused on the homeland? And I would say from an intelligence community perspective, that’s one of our highest priorities, which is to monitor and assess the degree to which those groups actually present an external threat.”
Portman: “Well, you’ve done some monitoring and assessment of it already. I mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA have adjusted their projections as to the threat to the homeland and particularly al Qaeda moving back into Afghanistan. So would you say again, is our homeland safe or less safe?”
Director Abizaid: “The CIA and DIA assessments that I’m aware of are within the range that we had assessed prior to the drawdown – one to three years. I think it’s fair to say that.”
Portman: “Well they’re saying it’s less time now and they’re saying that’s a conservative estimate.”
Director Abizaid: “I think it is fair to assess that the development of those groups external operations capability, we’ve got to monitor and assess whether that’s going to happen faster than we had predicted otherwise. Afghanistan is a very dynamic environment right now.”
Portman: “I’ll take that as a yes, that we’re less safe following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think it’s pretty obvious. Director Wray, do you have any comments on that? Do you think we’re more or less safe following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?”
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher A. Wray: “Well, I think I would share most of Director Abizaid’s summary. And, of course, you’ve cited some of the information you’ve gotten from our intelligence community partners. Obviously, we are concerned about what the future holds, whether it’s the possibility of another safe haven, whether it’s the possibility of ISIS-K being able to operate more freely in a less secure environment, whether it’s the possibility of events in Afghanistan serving as some kind of catalyst or inspiration for terrorist attacks elsewhere in the region or potentially with homegrown violent extremist.”
Portman: “Does it concern you that the Haqqani network leader, whose name is Haqqani, is now the acting Secretary of the Interior of Afghanistan?”
Director Wray: “It certainly concerns me.”
Portman: “He’s on your most wanted list, isn’t he?”
Director Wray: “I believe so.”
Portman: “Well look, the question is, what do we do now? And I hope that we have an enhanced response to the enhanced threat and not just the kind of feckless and tragic drone strike that we saw. With regard to the evacuees, Mr. Secretary, we haven’t had a chance to talk yet. I know you tried to reach me, and I appreciate that. I do think that we’ve got a real problem here. The best numbers we have are that very few of the people who have come over are so-called SIVs, meaning the people who actually helped us, who are drivers or interpreters, or otherwise assisted the U.S. effort. Secretary Blinken in his testimony last week, said there are about 20,000 people who had applied for SIV, 708 of them have come through the evacuation as far as we know, those are the best numbers we have. In fact, when you look at who’s come, not only did we leave American citizens behind and obviously leave a lot of these SIVs behind, who, you know, stood by us, but it looks like there are about 6,500 American citizens who came, that’s about 11 percent. About 3,500 lawful permanent residence, that’s just under six percent. There are about 3,000 people with visas, including these SIVs, that’s about five and a half percent. And the rest, around 75 percent of the people who came, are called parolees, meaning they don’t fit in any of those categories. And we’re pushing very hard to get the information again, we’re desperate to have a classified briefing to be able to get into that because apparently, you can’t provide it in an open setting or maybe just don’t have the information. But does that concern you that three-quarters of the people who we have brought into this country, and by the way, we brought about half the people into America, about 60,000, about 120,000 are still overseas. And we’re told that among those people overseas, there are even fewer American citizens or permanent green card holders or SIVs. But does it concern you that we don’t have in place a way to properly vet and handle these individuals, including allowing these individuals to walk off the military bases that they choose to do so today?”
Secretary of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas: “Ranking Member Portman, first of all, as a preliminary matter, I was disappointed to learn that of your disappointment with respect to the information that you’ve received, even in the classified context.”
Portman: “We haven’t had a classified briefing yet.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “Well, yesterday I understand the staff did.”
Portman: “The staff had one and their report to me, at least, was that they didn’t receive anything new that they hadn’t already received, including in our phone call yesterday, which was not classified. So the point is, we would just love to get whatever you all need to do to give us the information. We just don’t have the information.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “And precisely why I wanted to articulate my apology and make sure that we remedy that situation right away.”
Portman: “Thank you.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “You’re entitled to that information.”
Portman: “Thank you.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “So we do have a robust screening and vetting process, in addition to expertise, both in the transit countries and here domestically, to ensure the safety and security of the American people. Let me say, with respect to the population of individuals who are not American citizens, lawful permanent residents, or special immigrant visa holders, we also have in that remaining population individuals who applied for special immigrant visas but whose applications have not yet been completed at the time of the evacuation. We have individuals who have been employed locally in Afghanistan by the United States who have assisted us in Afghanistan. We have other individuals who qualify for special immigrant visa status, individuals who qualify for P1 or P2 classification of refugees. So it’s a very mixed population and we screen and vet that remaining group as we screen and vet all.”
Portman: “We’ll have the chance to get into this more later, but there’s some discrepancy there. We look forward to talking more about it later.”
Portman: “Let me start by saying that I appreciate what the men and women who work for you do every day. They wake up every morning and try to figure out how to keep our country safe. And I think every member of this panel appreciates that and commends them. I do think our policies are making it hard for them, and that’s what this is really about today is, what can we change policy-wise to reduce rather than enhance the threats to our homeland? As I said that earlier, I think it’s extraordinary that over these 20 years, we haven’t had a major mass casualty foreign terrorist event. We’ve certainly had our share of attacks, but not the kind we saw on 9/11, and that’s a tribute to them. But our policies worry me. And I’d like to dig a little deeper on a couple of them quickly.
“I appreciate what you said on social media, Director Wray, and certainly in the cybersecurity, we look forward to working with you, Mr. Secretary, on that legislation, to ensure that we have incident reporting, and we get a handle on the increasing cyber threat and the ransomware. But on these two issues, we’ve already talked about today. One is the Afghan evacuees and the potential problems we may have if we don’t have a system in place, a policy in place that makes the people, again who work for you and others, able to do their job. I’m concerned about it. And second, with regard to immigration.
“Getting back to what has been said about those individuals who were evacuated in this hasty and chaotic process. We left people behind. We all know that. We left American citizens behind, but mostly we left behind people who had helped us. But we also had people get on these flights to leave who, as far as we know at this point, had no connection to us in the sense of helping us or helping our allies and Secretary Mayorkas, your information is probably different than mine based on what you have said today. We have pushed and pushed, as you know, and as I said, I’m very frustrated we can’t get a classified briefing, maybe to dig in the bottom of this, but we don’t really need, in my view a classified briefing, we just need to know who these folks are. And by the way, it may surprise some of our constituents to find out that when these folks come over, and again, about 60,000 are here, about 120,000 total, 60,000 are still overseas. They’re permitted to walk. In other words, when they land at Dulles or land in Philadelphia, they’re allowed to leave and go into the community. Is that accurate, Mr. Secretary? Just a yes or no, please.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “No, that is not entirely accurate, Senator. There are conditions of parole for those who are paroled into the United States that are mandatory.”
Portman: “But when they land, if they choose not to go to the military base and to walk, they’re able to do that.”
Secretary Mayorkas: “They must receive, for example, certain immunizations in order to enter the interior of the United States.”
Portman: “Okay, so they have to get a shot. That’s fine. But they’re permitted to come into our country. My staff has been out there to see the arrivals. I have a friend who went to meet his interpreter who served in Afghanistan. And, you know, they said you can take him with you, but if you do, he could lose his benefits. I understand that. But my point is, we don’t have a system in place to keep people who want to walk. Now, the other question is, who are these people? And as I said, 75 percent of them are not green card holders. They’re not citizens. They’re not SIV holders. They’re not even applicants for SIV. You indicated otherwise. So we just need to get to the bottom of it because you want to know, I assume just as we want to know, you know how we can ensure who these people are and this notion that they’ve been vetted, as we would normally vet. I mean, how can we vet people? Are you going to call the Taliban government and say, is this information about this criminal record accurate? Of course we can’t. Normally, we would be able to contact the government. Of course, we didn’t have an embassy because we had evacuated it. So we didn’t go through the normal screening, to Director Abizaid, your answer earlier. We didn’t go through the normal screening process that you would for someone applying for a visa. You couldn’t because we didn’t have the visa officials in the foreign office there to do it. So I’m just going to leave that out there because I have lots more questions on it. And I could push on what we’ve heard. But let me just say, yesterday, when the State Department was pushed on this and we were asked how many of those parolees applied for SIV or were family members of former employees, the State Department said, ‘None of us really know.’ If that’s the answer fine. But if the answer is, as you said today, Mr. Secretary, they’re all accounted for and we know who they are. We’d certainly like to know that.”