Portman on Senate Floor: We Cannot Continue to Allow the Weak Screening of Afghan Evacuees Endanger Our Communities

WASHINGTON, DC – This evening on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered remarks on the need to strengthen vetting procedures for Afghan evacuee arrivals into the United States. Portman highlighted that the United States faces an increased threat due to the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban in charge, with FBI blacklisted terrorists serving in its highest ranks. He discussed his support for the resettlement of Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. over the last 20 years, but raised concerns from information learned at an unclassified briefing that, unless an evacuee was a known terrorist, terrorist affiliate, or criminal whose name, face, or fingerprints pinged the systems available to federal officials, there was not rigorous vetting or an in-person interview. 

Evacuees traveling without any identification records had new records created by U.S. officials based on the name and information they stated without appropriate validation. Portman described how alarming this is considering the continuing resolution passed in September that grants REAL ID eligibility to all Afghan evacuees. The REAL ID program was created to enhance security on commercial airlines and in federal facilities after 9/11. 

Prior to the continuing resolution’s passage, Senator Portman and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced an amendment to require that Afghan evacuees follow normal vetting procedures prior to receiving REAL ID driver’s licenses. This amendment would have protected national security by requiring that Afghan parolees not be exempted from the federal REAL ID requirements. The Democrats voted against the amendment and the amendment was not adopted. 

Portman highlighted the need to address REAL ID eligibility of Afghan evacuees and require in-person interviews prior to distributing any REAL IDs to those Afghan evacuees who have already reached our shores. Portman made it clear that he stands ready to work with the administration and all of his colleagues in the Senate to address and mitigate this vulnerability to U.S. homeland security. 

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here

“I rise today to speak about an issue that’s very concerning, and it has to do with our national security and our homeland security. I’m the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and in my role on that Committee, we’ve done a lot of investigation into what happened in Afghanistan in terms of the rushed and chaotic evacuation. And unfortunately, I’m here today to talk about a new threat to our homeland security due to the Biden administration’s failure to adequately vet the Afghan evacuees that came through this chaotic process.

“Like many of my colleagues here on the floor, I think I can speak for them, I support the resettlement of those who stood with us and our allies who stood with us in battle, in particular, over the past two decades in Afghanistan. That’s important. But everybody recognizes that the rushed nature of the evacuation resulted in some of the wrong people coming out and many of the right people not being rescued from Afghanistan. Too many people were left behind. There’s no question about that. There were American citizens left behind, permanent residents left behind, and many of the Afghans who had worked with us and our allies as interpreters, as drivers, who worked at NATO, or worked at the United Nations, they were left behind. So were a lot of people who were actually in the process of getting what’s called a special immigrant visa, SIV visa. That would be our allies in Afghanistan. The Afghans who, again, stood with us as drivers or interpreters and so on. 

“Getting information has been really hard from the administration, and it’s very frustrating to me, but also to every one of my colleagues and to the American people. In fact, in that recent continuing resolution, we actually got language included that requires by November 30 for the administration to tell us exactly how many SIV holders, special immigrant visa holders, were left behind. How many citizens were left behind, how many people who were employees of a U.S. or UN funded partner organization were left behind? We still haven’t heard. So we don’t know the information. But what we do know is that very few of the evacuees who came out were either American citizens, permanent residents, or SIV applicants or certainly SIV holders. 

“In fact, we know from the Department of Defense that there were only about 700 holders of SIVs that came out, out of the roughly 78,000 people who were evacuated to the United States. Let me say that again, only about 700 of those people were SIV holders. That’s out of thousands of SIV holders and applicants who were left behind in Afghanistan, 78,000 people got out. But the vast majority of them, again are not represented by any of these groups that we would have thought would have been brought out. 

“It’s also clear that in the rush and chaos at the Karzai Airport, the majority of those who were evacuated were neither American citizens, green card holders or Afghan special immigrant visa holders, as we talked about. So just as we have an obligation to help those resettle who stood with us, we also have an obligation to ensure that our communities are safe, that we know who’s being released into our communities. This means not releasing people who have not been fully vetted. We want to know who these people are. They might possibly have a record, a criminal record, they might have terrorist affiliations. And that’s why you need to do the proper screening and vetting. 

“Secretary Mayorkas testified in September before the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, where, again, I serve as the top Republican, and the testimony was about the vetting procedures of Afghan evacuees, he said, and I quote, ‘There is a robust screening and vetting process in addition to expertise, both in the transit countries and here domestically.’ There is a robust screening and vetting process, both in the transit countries and here domestically. I wish that were true, but unfortunately, it’s not. 

“An unclassified briefing with federal officials from all the relevant national security agencies last week confirmed what our committee staff had already discovered through our in-person oversight of the vetting operations. They toured operations here in the states. They also toured operations overseas at what’s called the ‘lily pads,’ where people are brought from Afghanistan to a foreign destination and then brought to the United States. What they found, and what was confirmed in that meeting last week, is that there is not a robust screening and vetting process for all Afghan evacuees. It is true that there is a screening process. This is what it consists of, providing fingerprints and your name and many times, a facial image, so your face, your fingerprints, and your name, to a federal database at the overseas lily pads. But unless the evacuee was a known terrorist, terrorist affiliate, or criminal whose name, face, or fingerprints was stored on the system, there was no vetting, no interviews, nothing else for Afghans paroled into the United States. 

“Now, here’s a problem with that. Our database is not complete. Despite repeated attempts to obtain the information, by the way, we don’t know how many Afghans were successful in getting past the database screening I just talked about, but we’re told by those on the ground that it was the vast majority. In other words, very few people were picked up through this database we talked about, which is DHS, State Department, intelligence services. Relying on hits on this database, biographic and biometric database that we have, is not adequate because the databases do not have information on all Afghans. Certainly, they don’t have information on all Afghans who may be terrorists or maybe terrorist sympathizers or may have a criminal record. We didn’t have a database like that. So we’re pinging it against a database that was incomplete. 

“Those Afghans with no information in the systems at all are not a known risk. I acknowledge that. And most of them are good people. But this does not mean that admitting them with no additional scrutiny is an acceptable risk. The best way to know something more about someone who’s in the process of being paroled into the United States is through intensive in-person interviews. That’s how it’s traditionally done. Interviews allow federal officials to dig deeper into an evacuee’s background and learn more about their affiliations as well as their beliefs about the United States and the western world. 

“In fact, we learned in the 9/11 Commission report, effective in-person interviews by U.S. government officials, prevented at least three individuals who were intending to join the 2001 terror plot and attacks – it kept them from entering the country and contributing to that tragedy on September 11. One of the major lessons from the 9/11 Commission was that if the U.S. government had conducted face-to-face interviews of all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers, the attacks may have been prevented altogether. 

“How soon we forget. 

“The requirement of an in-person interview is a standard process that normally applies to all refugees. It would have been appropriate to consider most of these Afghans to be refugees who would have been subject to persecution from the Taliban due to their status as a person who worked with us or because they were part of a vulnerable group, including a lot of women and girls. Interestingly, the Biden administration wants to treat the Afghan evacuees as refugees when it comes to their benefits, but they are not following the necessary refugee security procedures to vet those individuals. Our oversight identified many other issues and concerns with the vetting process. For example, if an Afghan evacuee did have identification, such as an Afghan National ID card or passport, the screening process did not include validation of the documents beyond a visual inspection. No follow up. The officials working at the military bases in Europe said they did not have any specific training or expertise in identifying a fraudulent Afghan ID card. 

“So again, our folks went over to these foreign locations, the so-called lily pads. Talked to the people who are doing this screening process and said, when you get an Afghan ID card, what do you do? They said we don’t have the expertise to identify a fraudulent Afghan ID card, so we assume that it’s accurate and their identities are logged into a national security database, a U.S. national security database. In some cases, of course, then based on what could be a fake ID. If the evacuees did not have any identification documents, which apparently was the case with a substantial number, no ID at all, federal officials simply logged them into our databases based on what they said was their name and their date of birth. So they created a national security database from what these individuals volunteered. We’re told it’s not unusual for Afghans not to know their actual birthday. It’s just not always part of the culture to record or have that information, that’s understood. But this has resulted in a number of the databases, including information about birthdays being January 1 of a particular year, so they were simply logged, as say, January 1, 1990. 

“The problem here is that our systems rely heavily on an individual’s birthday as a key biographic identifier. You get asked your birthday all the time, I’m sure, whether it’s getting health care, whether it’s at a security checkpoint, and now we have entered information into our systems that we cannot rely on to be accurate in some cases could be false identities. 

“Based on our oversight, again, trips to these sites with Democratic staff members, Republican staff members talking with those coordinating the Afghan resettlement here in the United States, it appears that each side of the ocean, folks overseas and folks here in America, thought the other side was doing more vetting than was actually occurring. The official overseeing the screening of an evacuee at a lily pad overseas told us he thought the vetting was being done when evacuees arrived on U.S. soil. When asked if he felt the screening and vetting being done at the military bases in Europe were sufficient to be confident in America’s security, since evacuees can and have left the bases in the United States, he said they were not. But that’s exactly what’s happening. 

“A senior official at a base in the United States confirmed that there are no in-person vetting interviews at any of the seven domestic military bases that are now housing evacuees and that all vetting interviews were done overseas at the lily pads. So it’s a little bit of one pointing to the other. Officials also confirmed that when an evacuee arrived in the United States, the only screen that was conducted was the standard customs screening that all international visitors and tourists go through at the airport. Specifically, evacuees provided their information if they had it at the customs booth and if there were no flags, they were immediately paroled into the United States for two years. Customs would check their information against the records created at the lily pads, effectively creating a feedback loop. So information that might not be accurate or might not be fulsome, might not be appropriate is then added to other information and one checked against the other. 

“Once here, the Afghan evacuees are not detained, and according to the administration, more than 2,000 of these individuals have now left the military bases where they are being housed and are freely moving about our communities. Again, my view is most of these people are good people. Some of them did help us. As I said, it’s a relatively small number. Somewhere around 75 percent are not SIV holders or applicants or citizens or permanent residents. But we don’t know who a lot of these folks are. And again, people think that they are at the military bases because that’s where they have to be until we do further vetting, that’s not true. There are no interviews being done here and they’re free to walk off the military bases and a couple of thousand have. The only conditions of parole that must be met prior to leaving the military base is to receive vaccinations for measles and COVID-19, and agreeing to update DHS with any change of address within ten days. That’s it. 

“I led an amendment with some of my colleagues to the recent continuing resolution to ensure that not all of the Afghan evacuees are automatically eligible for what’s called a REAL ID. If you’ve been to an airport recently, you know, you are going to need a REAL ID to get on a plane. A REAL ID is supposed to be issued only to individuals with a valid Social Security number, proof of identity, which is shown through a birth certificate, and two proofs of residency like a bank statement, lease, or utility bill that show they permanently live in the United States. There’s a process to get a REAL ID. It was a 9/11 Commission recommendation, by the way, that we have a REAL ID procedure. But while we U.S. citizens have to abide by all these requirements to get a license or an ID, Congress waived one requirement for Afghan evacuees, the requirement to provide proof of lawful residence. This undermines the ID system, the REAL ID system, and should not happen. 

“The amendment I offered with colleagues would have required the Afghan evacuees to follow the normal process to acquire a REAL ID. It would be to apply for asylum and then receive a REAL ID. Until their asylum application is approved, they’d be able to fly on an airplane with that asylum application or their work authorization, which many of them have received. Unfortunately, this body rejected that amendment with a narrow vote. 

“Due to the reckless policies of the Biden administration, we have the situation where an Afghan evacuee with no presence in our databases, no documents establishing identity, can have a cover identity created by the U.S. government at, for example, Ramstein Airbase, where we went and talked to individuals based on a stated name, volunteered, a stated birth date and then can receive a REAL ID when they come to the United States. It doesn’t seem right to people when I explain that, and it’s not, but that’s the system. 

“I’ve come down here a number of times to talk about what’s going on in the southern border. Again, in my role as the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, we do a lot of work in that area. Unfortunately, it’s getting worse, not better in terms of number of people coming across, the number of drugs coming across, the amount of human trafficking. What is astounding is that as open as our southern border is under this administration, if an Afghan tried to cross our southern border, they would be interviewed. They’d be interviewed by a federal law enforcement official. Under this Afghan resettlement operation, though, the Biden administration has lowered the bar for security even below that of our southern border. 

“We already know from the administration there are Afghan evacuees who pose dangerous national security threats who were able to pass the screening process we talked about at lily pads overseas and to arrive on U.S. soil. We still don’t know how they were apprehended, but we do know from media reporting that there are at least ten evacuees who made it past all this screening into the United States prior to the national security concerns being raised and causing them currently to be detained in federal facilities as a national security threat. That’s ten. We don’t know how many more there are. 

“The lack of appropriate screening and vetting of Afghan evacuees by this administration is reminiscent of a pre-9/11 security mindset. Remember, we were at war in Afghanistan for 20 years. We know that ISIS-K and Al Qaeda are operating in Afghanistan. These dynamics in Afghanistan should be reflected by ensuring the normal national security vetting processes are applied to all evacuees. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I stand ready to work with the administration and all of my colleagues in the Senate, both sides of the aisle, to address and mitigate this vulnerability to U.S. homeland security. I hope it’s not too late. 

“I believe we’ve got to address the REAL ID eligibility of Afghan evacuees and require in-person vetting prior to distributing any new REAL IDs to those Afghan refugees who have reached our shores. For future Afghan arrivals, it’s clear that the vetting and interview process must be strengthened and enforced. And again, in talking to the federal officials on the ground overseas, they would agree. 

“It’s not too much to ask that Afghan refugees be treated the same as all refugees when it comes to security vetting. We can’t continue to allow a lack of effective screening of Afghan evacuees to endanger our communities. Thank you, Mr. President, I yield the floor.” 

###