Hundreds of Afghan evacuees reached the U.S. despite appearing on a Defense Department watchlist or a crucial counterterrorism database, Republican senators charged Thursday, citing the claims of a whistleblower.
Sens. Josh Hawley and Ron Johnson said they were told that 324 Afghans reached the U.S. despite appearing on the Defense Department’s Biometrically Enabled Watchlist (BEWL).
In addition, 65 Afghans who made it to American soil showed up 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 were told that political appointees ordered military officers to “cut corners” on fingerprint checks for the evacuees to rush them into the U.S. and that Department of Homeland Security employees were told to delete some biometric data when they believed it was out of date.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. The report said 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 November. Most were released before they were flagged, and only a few could be located when authorities went looking for them, the inspector general reported.
Mr. Hawley and Mr. Johnson said they were told that the number of Afghan evacuees who triggered ABIS hits was up to 65.
Meanwhile, a different Pentagon database, the BEWL, flagged 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 an investigation.
Homeland Security officials say they ran identities of Afghans through a series of databases, including the BEWL, from multiple agencies before allowing them into the U.S. Anyone who showed derogatory information was supposed to be put through follow-up checks, such as in-person interviews, before being cleared.
“The federal government is leveraging every tool available to ensure that no individuals who pose a threat to public safety or national security are permitted to enter the United States,” the department said in a statement.
The inspector general concluded that ABIS wasn’t part of that vetting. That’s because the Pentagon had agreements with foreign intelligence services, which shared data with the Defense Department, restricting the use of ABIS.
Homeland Security has said it disagrees with the inspector general’s findings but has not made its objections public.
Mr. Hawley confronted FBI Director Christopher A. Wray with the whistleblower accusations at a hearing Thursday.
Mr. Wray said he wasn’t familiar with the specific numbers that Mr. Hawley was citing, but he added that his agents were 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 had assisted the 20-year American war effort, but most of those 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, and then transferred 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. Still, the department has acknowledged that few of the Afghans were interviewed in person before reaching the U.S.
Mr. Hawley, Missouri Republican, and Mr. Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said they were told that 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. Because of bureaucratic issues, Mr. O’Donnell said, 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 from explosive devices, which could identify potential bad actors.
The inspector general’s office confirmed Thursday that Mr. O’Donnell had received the letter and was reviewing it, but did not comment on the whistleblower claims.
• Joseph Clark contributed to this story.