Sen. Johnson doubts refugee vetting process, White House affirms it is rigorous

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 7:58 PM CDT
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FORT MCCOY, Wis. (WSAW) - As Sen. Ron Johnson and Wisconsin Republican state representatives toured Fort McCoy Wednesday, they cast doubt on the vetting process for Afghan refugees. White House representatives affirmed the process NewsChannel 7 has reported over the last week, saying “No one gets on a flight to the United States without clearing that screening, period.”

The legislators spoke with Maj. Gen. Darrell Guthrie who is in charge of the operation along with representatives from the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security.

Sen. Johnson said in a press conference following the tour that the general had told them many of the refugees did not have identification with them. They were also told that the refugees currently at Fort McCoy were not Special Immigrant Visa applicants, but were vulnerable Afghans, a group the White House has noted are eligible to be refugees.

After stating that information, Sen. Johnson implied the refugees at Fort McCoy had not been vetted, or if they had provided biographical data, that there would be nothing to compare it to.

“It was a point that we were making with Gen. Guthrie and the state department and the Department of Homeland Security personnel here, is that puts an even greater burden on their shoulders to evaluate and vet and try to identify those individuals that they are going to be taking care of here,” he said.

NewsChannel 7 asked for clarification, stating the process that refugees are supposed to go through before being granted immigrant refugee status and privileges. Also, adding that the White House and others have stated all people evacuated out of Afghanistan have been taken to another country to go through security screening before touching U.S. soil.

When asked if that was not his understanding of the process refugees were going through before getting to bases like Fort McCoy, he restated many of the refugees do not have identification and most of the refugees did not have SIV status.

“I don’t know what the truth is,” he continued. “I mean, listen, I’ve been doing, I’ve been investigating for like six years, it’s hard to get the truth out of any administration, that they hold information pretty close to the vest. One of the reasons we’re here and holding this press conference right now is to ask the questions the American public should be asking, should be demanding answers to. So, personally, I’m not taking anything the administration is saying at face value.”

A White House staff member stated as a response to Sen. Johnson’s remarks, “...*everyone* goes through robust security screening at the third party country transit hubs before flying to the United States.”

A spokesperson for Fort McCoy told NewsChannel 7 the Department of Defense is providing medical screenings, transportation, meals, and lodging. She said agencies like the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security are providing additional security screening or vetting as it pertains to the refugee immigrant process.

The Department of State did not respond to NewsChannel 7′s questions Wednesday.

Sen. Johnson also criticized the handling of the U.S. pull-out and evacuation of Afghanistan both abroad and in the U.S.

“What is happening right now is a travesty. It’s a disaster. It’s a large enough disaster, there are people working this problem that, obviously, value their careers, but they are starting to reach out to members of Congress, to their state representatives, and they’re talking about the chaos that they are witnessing,” he said.

Sen. Johnson added Maj. Gen. Guthrie said he was only given 10 days’ notice of the mission to take in Afghan refugees.

A White House staff member responded to the claim of chaos, “the situation on the ground in Afghanistan was and still is a rapidly evolving situation that has caused us to have to respond rapidly. That is why our law enforcement, military and counter-terrorism personnel are working around the clock to process these folks through the necessary steps as efficiently as possible.”

However, Sen. Johnson said he believes it did not have to be this way.

“I think the overall goal is something we all share,” Sen. Johnson said in his opening remarks. “First and foremost, make sure every American citizen in Afghanistan would get out safely before the chaos began. Certainly, the goal would have been to get those special immigrant visa holders, and others that worked for Americans whose lives are in grave danger now to get them out ahead of time, fully vetted, but safely, and then integrate successfully into American society. That would have been, that is, the goal, it still is the goal. It could have been accomplished, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

Sen. Johnson said he was never in favor of fully leaving Afghanistan to ensure they maintain intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In an address Tuesday, President Joe Biden addressed that concern.

“We went to Afghanistan with our Allies in 2001 for clear reasons: One, to get the people who attacked us on 9/11 and to get Osama bin Laden, and to make sure that Afghanistan was not used again as a base from which to attack the United States or our Allies. We achieved that objective. We delivered justice to bin Laden more than a decade ago.

But the current environment looks very different than it did in 2001, and we have to meet the challenges we face today.

We run effective counter-terrorism operations around the world where we know terrorism is more of a threat than it is today in Afghanistan, without any permanent military presence on the ground. And we can and will do the same thing in Afghanistan with our over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability.

Cooperation with our closest partners on our enduring counter-terrorism mission will continue to be an essential piece of our strategy.”

All of the legislators present at Fort McCoy Wednesday acknowledged an obligation to help Afghan refugees, especially those who have helped the U.S.

“I know that the veterans of Afghanistan that I’ve spoken to and spoken with. That is what they want. They know so many of these people. They know they saved their lives, so I want the American public to understand. That’s an important responsibility that America holds. Let’s not forget that,” Sen. Johnson said.

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