Sep 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Pentagon watchdog to open review into Afghanistan whistleblower claims

Lloyd Austin
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Pentagon's acting inspector general told two Republican senators he'll conduct a review regarding a whistleblower's allegations that the Biden administration evacuated and brought to the U.S. hundreds of individuals whose names appeared on a Defense Department watch list, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The nonpartisan watchdog's evaluation could provide new ammunition for GOP lawmakers who have already signaled plans to hold hearings on the administration's controversial Afghanistan exit if they win control of Congress in November.

Driving the news: Acting IG Sean O'Donnell sent a letter on Tuesday to Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the top Republican on Senate Homeland Security's subcommittee on investigations, and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) informing them of his plans to conduct the review in Fiscal Year 2023, which begins in October.

  • O'Donnell said he also plans to evaluate the senators' questions about the whistleblower's allegations that officials on Biden's National Security Council and at the Pentagon cut corners and "did not follow proper procedures when processing evacuees in Afghanistan and at staging bases [in Europe]," according to the letter.
  • The Pentagon's IG office made clear this is not a "formal investigation" — as those are typically of a criminal nature.

The backdrop: The Pentagon whistleblower initially reached out to Johnson and Hawley in late July, two sources familiar with the situation told Axios.

  • The two senators then sent a letter to O'Donnell last month calling on him to open an investigation into the allegations that 324 individuals evacuated from Afghanistan were allowed to enter the U.S. despite appearing on the Defense Department's Biometrically Enabled Watchlist (BEWL).
  • The BEWL lists individuals whose biometrics have been collected and are considered threats or potential threats to national security, including suspected terrorists.
  • The senators' Aug. 4 letter also detailed allegations that the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies did not properly vet the Afghan evacuees they allowed into the country, including by failing to adequately cross-check with the Pentagon database prior to their arrivals.
  • According to Hawley and Johnson, the whistleblower also alleged that — rather than administer fingerprint tests on all ten fingers — "personnel were told to abbreviate their tests in order to promote the rushed evacuation."
  • O'Donnell referred the additional questions to other agencies' inspectors general.

Worth noting: O'Donnell was careful not to say he is investigating the whistleblower's claims, given they did not reach out to the IG's office but instead contacted the two senators directly.

  • Instead he is investigating the senators' questions about the allegations, as per protocol.
  • The OIG also pointed Hawley and Johnson to a report it issued in Feb. 2022 detailing the extent to which the Pentagon managed and tracked displaced persons from Afghanistan through the biometric enrollment, screening and vetting process.

What we're watching: A new 34-page report from the DHS inspector general determined the agency lacked "critical data to properly screen, vet and inspect" Afghan evacuees, CBS reported on Wednesday — indicating some of the whistleblower's allegations were accurate.

  • "U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not always have critical data to properly screen, vet, or inspect the evacuees," DHS IG Joseph Cuffari said, according to CBS.
  • "We determined some information used to vet evacuees through U.S. Government databases, such as name, date of birth, identification number, and travel document data, was inaccurate, incomplete, or missing," he added.

Read the letter.

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