The majority of Afghans airlifted out of Kabul in last month’s emergency evacuation weren’t vetted before getting on the planes, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators on Tuesday.
Mr. Blinken said they were too pressed to clear the crush of people at the airport and keep the runway open, and had to put off the vetting until later — but he insisted those checks were done.
“Before they got on airplanes, certainly most of them were not,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “That is exactly why we established transit points through negotiations with those countries to make sure before anyone came to the United States they would be vetted by different law enforcement and security agencies.”
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, was stunned: “So, who were you letting on the planes? Anybody that showed up?”
According to Mr. Blinken, that wasn’t too far off at first.
“Well, initially, as you know, there were people who managed to flood the airport. We had to do an immediate assessment of those. We had to make sure we could clear people out of the airport so that the flights could come in, go out,” he said.
But he said none of them reached the U.S. “without being checked somewhere else first to make sure that they don’t pose a security threat.”
Mr. Blinken, in two days of testimony to Congress this week, said about 45,000 Afghans have already reached the U.S.
But he did not provide a breakdown of who is in that population. In particular, he said his department is “still tabulating” how many Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort and were eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa were left behind.
Sen. Rob Portman, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said his office has tried to piece together the best numbers it can from an administration that’s been reluctant to reveal much detail.
He said there were 18,000 pending applicants for the special visa but just 705 were brought out in the airlift.
U.S. authorities identified perhaps 60,000 others “at risk” from the new Taliban government, with about half of them getting evacuated, said Mr. Portman.
The airlift was sold as a chance to help Americans and legal U.S. residents stuck in Afghanistan, and Afghans who had a reasonable claim to refugee status or were in the special visa pool.
Mr. Portman said about three-quarters of the people that were evacuated didn’t meet either of those categories.
“You say they are being vetted. Good. They should be,” Mr. Portman told Mr. Blinken. “Nobody knows because we can’t get information from the Department of Homeland Security and others.”
The nature of that vetting has been difficult to ascertain.
Mr. Blinken, in his testimony, ticked off a list of agencies he said are involved, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the CIA and Customs and Border Protection. But officials have not said much about what they’re looking for.
The Washington Times has reported on the case of one convicted rapist who was deported from the U.S. in 2017 but was brought back on an evacuation flight.
Mr. Blinken also took heat from immigrant-rights advocates Tuesday for not answering key questions about the evacuation.
“While the Biden administration did not inherit a cohesive withdrawal plan, the responsibility for developing and implementing one fell squarely on its shoulders,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “To suggest that the Taliban takeover was unforeseeable is misleading at best.
Refugee advocates, veterans, lawmakers, and Afghan allies themselves had long been calling for an orderly evacuation ahead of withdrawal.”
He said the State Department must step up efforts to assist those who didn’t make it out in time.
Mr. Blinken said the number of U.S. citizens who want to leave but didn’t get out is about 100.