Rep. Chris Smith Questions the Vetting of Afghan Evacuees Brought to U.S.

By Terence P. Jeffrey | September 27, 2021 | 5:22pm EDT
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(CNSNews.com) - Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been raising questions about the vetting of Afghan evacuees brought into the United States.

Thousands of these evacuees have been housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB-MDL) in Smith’s home state of New Jersey. On Sept. 2, Smith along with other members of the New Jersey congressional delegation and Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy visited that base.

In a Sept. 20 interview with CNSNews.com, Smith discussed his concerns about the handling of the evacuees who had been brought to JB-MDL and to other facilities in the United States.

“I saw the military doing a magnificent job to make people feel at home, to make sure they had accommodations,” Smith told CNSNews.com. “But I was extraordinarily worried and continue to be about the vetting process before they get there.

“I asked very serious questions about: How do you do a background check on someone, particularly somebody in the age where they might be more prone to be an al Qaida enthusiast? How do you do a background check back in Afghanistan to determine who they are and what their affiliations might have been?” said Smith.

“So, I didn’t get good answers,” said Smith.

“I wrote Secretary Mayorkas on the 13th September,” he said. “We got back a letter a couple of days later and it says: We’ll get back to you. We’re working on answers to your questions. So, there has been this slow walk on telling us how well or poorly did they actually vet these individuals.”

There are two different types of evacuees who have been brought to the United States from Afghanistan. The first group consists of Special Immigrant Visa (SIVs) holders. These are people who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan and about whom, therefore, the U.S. government has some background information. The second group consists of “parolees.” These are people who did not work for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan and therefore have not been granted SIVs.

CNSNews.com asked Rep. Smith: “Do you think it is a problem with these parolees that they brought into New Jersey?”

“I think it is a very serious problem,” Smith responded. “It could have an answer if they can find out who exactly that they are. Some of the women and children, especially, probably, the presumption would be that they’re okay. But there are others that would raise some very serious questions that reasonable people need to ask. And I asked that question when I was on the base visit. More than 70 percent of the people that were at Fort Dix then—it hasn’t changed, as far as I can ascertain—were parolees. Humanitarian parolees. Not SIVs.”

In his Sept. 13 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Smith noted that JB-MDL was “expected to house up to 13,000 Afghan refugees.”

“In welcoming Afghan evacuees to the U.S.—and out of an abundance of respect and concern for all Americans as well as genuine refugees—it remains absolutely essential,” Smith wrote, “that comprehensive and effective vetting occurs to ensure that no terrorist slips into any American community.”

Smith then asked the Mayorkas a series of questions. One was the following: “Is there a biometric and historical database to vet and confirm the identity of any Afghan evacuee who has arrived at a military base, including information about one’s history before leaving Afghanistan? If so, is that list with DOD, DHS, or Department of State and do leadership at each military installation have access to that information with an ability to update it as needed?”

Two days later, on Sept. 15, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alice Lugo sent a letter to Smith replying to his inquiry as follows: “Your correspondence is very important to us. The appropriate Department of Homeland Security Components are preparing information so we can respond with the accuracy and completeness that your letter deserves. Please know that the Department’s leadership has accorded your letter a high priority, and we are endeavoring to respond to you as soon as possible.”

As of the afternoon of Sept. 27, the Department of Homeland Security had still not provided substantive answers to Smith’s questions.

Here is a full transcript of the CNSNews.com interview with Rep. Chris Smith:

Terry Jeffrey: “Welcome to this edition of Online With Terry Jeffrey. Our guest today is Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. Congressman Smith has served in Congress since 1980 and is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman Smith, thanks for joining us to do this.

Rep. Chris Smith: “Terry, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate what you do, and your writing especially.”

Jeffrey: “Thank you very much, sir. I want to start out by playing a statement that CIA Director Bill Burns made in the Senate Intelligence Committee back on April 14.”

CIA Director Bill Burns: “With regard to Afghanistan, I'll begin and then turn to Director Haines.

“I guess what I would say at the start is that, you know: I think we have to be clear-eyed about the reality on looking at the potential terrorism challenge, that both al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets, whether it's in the region, in the West, or ultimately in the homeland. After years of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today and that there are terrorist groups, whether it's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or in other parts of the world, who represent much more serious threats today.

“I think it is also clear that our ability to keep that threat in Afghanistan in check from either al-Qaida or ISIS in Afghanistan has benefited greatly from the presence of U.S. and coalition militaries on the ground and in the air, fueled by intelligence provided by the CIA and our other intelligence partners. When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That's simply a fact.”

Jeffrey: “Congressman, given what CIA Director Burns said, is there any reason to doubt that both al Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan have the ambition, at least, of building the ability to attack the United States in the United States?”

Smith: “Terry, there is no doubt in my mind that they are regrouping. They will do everything they can possible do and do it as quickly as they can to strike once again. President Biden has given them an engraved invitation to do just that with his horrific withdrawal. And, you know, I go back, in 1998, when we got hit by al Qaida in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi, I’m the one who held all the hearings about that. It killed over 220 people, twelve Americans, injured 4,500 people with bomb blasts. And I’ll never forget, Admiral Crowe testified at my hearings—he was a chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff—he did these accountability review boards, and said: Nobody thought they would hit there. So, our guard was done, and in they came over the horizon and, again, blew up our embassies. So, I think, déjà vu all over again to quote Yogi Berra. We’re dealing with a situation where we know what their intent is and even the CIA director has so said.”

Jeffrey: “So, back then, even after those terrorist attacks by al Qaida, we underestimated what they were trying to do?”

Smith: “Exactly. I actually wrote the Embassy Security Act. And the first year, it was to put setbacks and put Mylar on the windows, make the windows less—you know, they turn into shrapnel when they are blown in into the embassy’s people--I wrote that law. And, one year later, the Clinton Administration comes up and they did not want to fund it. We got the money in. But it was like, you go to sleep so quickly. And I am very fearful and concerned that that is what is happening again right now.”

Jeffrey: “Congressman, recently you visited Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, which is one of the locations that the U.S. government has used for evacuees brought in from Afghanistan. What did you see there?”

Smith: “Well, they had about 3,000 Afghan evacuees there then. Now, it’s about 9,400. I saw the military doing a magnificent job to make people feel at home, to make sure they had accommodations. But I was extraordinarily worried and continue to be about the vetting process before they get there. I asked very serious questions about: How do you do a background check on someone, particularly somebody in the age where they might be more prone to be an al Qaida enthusiast? How do you a background check back in Afghanistan to determine who they are and what their affiliations might have been? From date forward, yeah, you can get fingerprints and biometrics, but you can’t really look back all that well. So, I didn’t get good answers. I wrote Secretary Mayorkas on the 13th September. We got back a letter a couple of days later and it says: We’ll get back to you. We’re working on answers to your questions. So, there has been this slow walk on telling us how well or poorly did they actually vet these individuals.” 

Jeffrey: “So, they have not gotten back to you?” 

Smith: “They have not got back to me. And I raised the questions when the Secretary of State testified, got very poor answers there. It’s all on the record, and you wrote about it. I deeply appreciate that. But then there’ been like, ok, we need these answers. We need to know who it is.     When the people from Kosovo came to Fort Dix back in 1999, and I had actually been in the refugee camps where they were in Macedonia. It was called Stakevich Refugee Camp. You know, we welcomed them. We all thought we’re trying to do our best. They are escaping a war-torn area. They are truly refugees, so many of them. One of those guys become the person who was getting weapons for the Fort Dix Five. So, he either came over radicalized or became so. And since he lived on the base, Fort Dix, for so long, he had all this information about where everything was.”

Jeffrey: “And we let him in.”

Smith: “And we’re the ones who let him in.”

Jeffrey: “Now, congressman, with the people in Fort Dix now, as I understand it, there’s really two groups: There are Special Immigrant Visa holders, who are people who worked for the U.S. government or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan, and, therefore, we know something about them.

Smith: “True.”

Jeffrey: “But there are also, quote unquote, parolees, who are people who did not work for us in Afghanistan. Do you think it is a problem with these parolees that they brought in to New Jersey?”

Smith: “I think it is a very serious problem. It could have an answer if they can find out who exactly that they are. Some of the women and children, especially, probably, the presumption would be that they’re okay. But there are others that would raise some very serious questions that reasonable people need to ask. And I asked that question when I was on the base visit. More than 70 percent of the people that were at Fort Dix then—it hasn’t changed, as far as I can ascertain—were parolees. Humanitarian parolees. Not SIVs.”

Jeffrey: “70 percent?”

Smith: “70 percent. So, the people that were our allies—they were even having a problem with interpreters for those people. The general told us: Oh, we need about 300 additional—it was over 300—interpreters to talk. Well, we were getting interpreters out, I thought, who could have been lending their capability to this effort.  But they didn’t get out and that’s unfortunate. They’re our friends and allies.”

Jeffrey: “Secretary Blinken was telling you in the hearing last week that they vetted these people overseas. They are vetting them more at Fort Dix. But, really, what background information do they have on these parolees? What is the database?”     

Smith: “I asked that very question. I’ve asked it again of Secretary Mayorkas because Homeland Security does have the lead now. And we don’t get answers. And the answers we do get is that, oh, we’re doing eye scans. Well, how does that check the database back in Afghanistan. It’s like they just keep saying it over and over again. It’s almost like our southern border, where there’s no vetting, there’s no real sense of who it is that might be coming into the United States under this open borders policy of Biden.”     

Jeffrey: “So, as a senior person on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, you have not been informed about the data and the information that the government is using to try to determine who these parolees are and whether or not they pose a threat?”

Smith: “That’s exactly it. And I asked that very question. I asked six questions of Mayorkas on     the 13th and we haven’t gotten an answer back. We’ve called to find out where’s the answers to this. And others, I’m sure, have asked the question as well. We need to know who they are. We are talking about well over 100,000 people when the full process is over. And, you know, and I even said, I wrote an op-ed the day I went to Fort Dix and said: We do not want some terrorist surreptitiously embedding himself into a local community.   

“And, again, the proximity to the airbase, they’re right there next to our jets, our fighters, our airlift capability. Again, you’ve got to assume the worst in order to be prepared and that shows no lack of humanitarianism on my part because they also could go after their own fellow refugees or evacuees as well.”   

Jeffrey: “And have some of the parolees actually left the base there?”

Smith: “Yes. We’re told that—let’s see, I just got the number today--115 have departed. And, again, the vetting is done before they get to Fort Dix—either at Dulles our out of the country—you know, maybe in one of the other stopping areas, including in Germany. But how serious is it? When you’ve got a line that goes right out the door. I mean, background checks are supposed to be very rigorous. I don’t know how they do it. And, again, the lack of answers suggests that it is not being done in a comprehensive way.”

Jeffrey: “Has the State Department made any commitment to you to actually provide that information at some point?”

Smith: “No. They say they’ll get back. They want to do a good job on answering the questions. That’s what Mayorkas just said in his letter back. It’s not good. And the American people deserve better. You know, we are a welcoming society. We care about refugees when they are genuine. We did it with Southeast Asia. We did it with the boat people coming out of Vietnam. You know, I worked very hard on that. But you got to make sure that they are who they say they are. And, unfortunately, when the president said on July 23 and said it to Ghani, the then-president of Afghanistan, that whether it be true or not we’ve got to paint a better picture. That is a lie. Then what other true-or-nots are we dealing with under this president. Tell us the absolute truth and let us deal with that. Don’t be a true-or-not to just show a better perception.”

Jeffrey: “And Secretary Blinken declined to address that when you questioned him about it.”

Smith: “Yes, he did. And I think how many other times has this been happening, Terry. You just don’t know. But we want honesty and we have not gotten it.”

Jeffrey: “So at the same time the Biden administration has been bringing into New Jersey and other places in the United States       Afghan parolees, who we really do not know who they are, and really can’t do adequate vetting of who they are, they have left behind some Americans in Afghanistan who want to get out. Are you confident that the Biden Administration is eventually going to extract from Afghanistan all the Americans still there who want to come home?”

Smith: “Well, I am not confident in anything this president is doing. I am hopeful. I believe that many others, especially some of the Afghan veteran members of Congress and other interested parties are doing yeoman’s work in getting people out. Trying to find ways to get them across the border to safety. But the fact that it is a matter of when and not if and they’re already doing it, certain individuals are killed, summarily executed by the Taliban. This is really a powder keg. And I always say: What if I were in their shoes? ‘I worked with the Americans. I was part of that intelligence-gathering capability. I was perhaps an interpreter.’ I would feel so betrayed by Joe Biden and this administration, and Milley. I mean the fact that we gave up Bagram Air Force Base in the middle of the night and then the incoming Afghan head of the base says: What, they just left? They didn’t tell us? There was no working with our allies. If you don’t work with your allies? They have people there, too.”

Jeffrey: “How possibly could that have been a prudential judgement to give up Bagram like that?”

Smith: “I think they had a deadline. They were surging towards we’ve got to be out of there, at first, by September 11th with a big photo op.  I lost a lot of people in my district on 9/11. A member of my staff lost her husband. She wasn’t on the staff then. We hired her later. And she’s just a wonderful, wonderful person. You see it through their eyes. Again, as you pointed out in your clip, when you get Burns, the CIA director, saying they’re regrouping. They’re getting ready to strike again. And just like, I met with Bashir in Khartoum--the terrible general, he also was the president who was wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity--I met with him in 2005 and he made a point of—I already knew it—but he made a big point of saying: We were going to give you Osama bin Laden on a platter when he was here in Sudan and Bill Clinton said no. That’s when he went to Afghanistan. We miss opportunities over and over again. And, just like the bombings of our embassies, which were really true wake-up calls that al Qaida can strike anywhere in this transnational terrorism that it’s not just the hard targets, they’re going after other targets, soft targets. And now they can muster again, plan, and all with the idea of killing Americans.”

Jeffrey: “We’ve had another warning. In a statement you put out earlier this month, congressman, you asked: ‘How many Afghan refugees have been “screened out” thus far due to their past?’”

Smith: “Yes. Still don’t have the answer. Could you believe that: Still don’t have the answer. I have seen anecdotally in some of the newspaper clips, maybe 100. I don’t know what the number is. There should be an absolute number and where they went.”

Jeffrey: “So, you are trying to get this from the State Department or DOD?”

Smith: “Yes. The State Department.”

Jeffrey: “And so far, they haven’t said if even one single Afghan has failed a background check and has not been let in?”

Smith: “Well, I’ve heard, again, anecdotally, through the newspapers, that some have been screened out. But we don’t know how many. I mean, there should be a running list, again, for accuracy, transparency, of all of this. They should have you and other members of them media come in and say: This is how we vet. This is the process. Then, like it or not, at least we know what it is. We don’t know what it is. They look at databases of all kinds.”

Jeffrey: “There should be an official declaration by the U.S. State Department that here are these five individuals, here are their names, that we did not allow to come out because they were members of al Qaida of ISIS or whatever.”   

Smith: “Exactly. And that should be an ongoing number. And what I don’t like, too, is that the process for vetting seems to have a date certain when it’s over and then all of a sudden they are coming from Dulles or some other staging areas to Fort Dix and elsewhere. That vetting and that surveillance, if you will, benign surveillance, needs to be done. If something doesn’t look right, you better say wait a minute, we think this is—and fill in the blank.”   

Jeffrey: “What do you think is the most important adjustment the Biden Administration can make now to try to amend for these problems they’ve caused?”

Smith: “Well, I think an apology, certainly, to our allies and especially to those men and women who suffered in Afghanistan—either died or lost their limbs or have been sick ever since, some with PTSD. They need an apology for a hurry-up exodus that was not rooted in reality. The fact that the Taliban were our go-to—and they used the word ‘partners’—when they ringed—You know, I asked the administration, and wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times, and got it to them, and I even asked Milley himself: Why don’t you have humanitarian corridors to get our people out? It turns out the British were doing it on an ad hoc basis and that was after I wrote the op-ed. It’s like, this is what you do. No Americans get left behind. So, I was very concerned about that. But I think he owes an apology. And stop spinning. Just stop it. You know, people would at least appreciate that maybe mistakes were made.  And, then, even as it relates to China: You know, Global Times announced that I’m on China’s hit list because I worked on human rights abuses vis a visa China for most of my career. After Tiananmen Square I was in one of the gulags, where they were, Beijing Prison Number 1, forty Tiananmen Square activists.  I only say that because for Milley to suggest that he would give advance warning to General Li, who is just--let’s put it this way, he does terrible things in his country. It’s the only way he got that job. Look what they are doing to the Uighurs, what they’ve done in Hong Kong and elsewhere. He’s going to give them an advance warning that we may be coming? Does that put our men in women in uniform who might be on those ships? And, again, there was nothing like that even contemplated. Everyone forgets that when Iran shot down our drone a couple of years ago, the military and, it looked like Trump, were ready to do a retaliatory, proportionate response. And President Trump said: How many people could lose their lives with this? They said, a hundred and, I think it was a hundred and fifteen, or, a hundred and fifty was the number. He said: Call it off. I don’t want to take those lives. I mean, this is a man who did not want war and to suggest that somehow he was going to use nukes, that’s outrageous and that’s a smear, quite frankly.”  

Jeffrey: “Do you think General Milley should resign over what he did?”

Smith: “Yes. I think he needs to be fully accountable for what he’s done. I remember when I was a kid, a kid, I watched ‘Seven Days in May’ and my wife and I re-watched it about two years ago. It was on Netflix—or not Netflix but one of the streaming services and we watched it. And Burt Lancaster creates a coup against the president. And I kept thinking: Boy, could that ever happen here? And all of a sudden we have what has at least some ear-markings of a coup—certainly not following the Constitution—coming from General Milley. So, he has to give a full and thorough accounting when he testifies before the Senate, and that’s soon. Hopefully, they will ask him very hard questions. But for the president in one line to say: I have full confidence in him. Come on. This is not—Our Constitution couldn’t be clearer about the line of authority that that position actually holds.  And he does not have those--And, then, in 2015, I’ve been raising the idea that China poses an existential threat to the region and increasingly over time to the world. They are building up their nuke capability, and their dual use—I am the one who had all the hearings with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco back fifteen years ago because they were aiding and abetting their ability to do command and control and censor and do surveillance on people. It was an eight-hour hearing and I chaired it. I say that and here we are saying:     Oh, they are not really--They’re growing. Universal Studios just opened up another one. You look at Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping is Mao Zedong by a different name. They’re committing genocide as we talk, Terry. As you know. I can’t believe he would be on such a chummy, chummy basis with General Li.”       

Jeffrey: “Would you put steep tariffs on American manufacturing companies that go to China, partner with China, and build their products over there?”   

Smith: “Well, I will go further. I am preparing a bill that would say that we re-impose sanctions on China vis a vis Most Favored Nation status, which is what Bill Clinton--We had the votes after Tiananmen Square--and I was one of the leaders here in the Congress—to take away MFN unless they showed serious and sustained progress in human rights. Bill Clinton got into power and he goes: Oh, give me a year. I will do an executive order. And he did a great executive order. I thought it had all the key points in it. And, then, over the course of the year, the message was coming out of Beijing that they’re getting MFN without conditions. So, I went over there, six months into it, met with some of their foreign policy, foreign affairs people and they said: We’re getting it. So, I came back. Warned Warren Christopher that they think Bill Clinton and his then-secretary of state were bluffing are bluffing. And, on May 26, 1994, and I actually did a press conference, it’s still on CSPAN in their archives, May 26, 1994. Friday afternoon, Bill Clinton severs his executive order and there’s no more linkage. That’s when they looked at us and said: All they care about is profits; human rights, democracy is just filler. But that’s when they began in earnest to build up their military capability.”

Jeffrey: “Would most House Republicans join with you in taking a hard line like that against China?”

Smith: “Now they would. Then they didn’t.        There was a bipartisan pro-China somehow will matriculate from dictatorship to democracy if we just trade more. I said, no, they would just become more of a potent adversary, especially to their own people if they have all of that financial largesse. And, I didn’t know if I was right or wrong, but I felt it in my core—that that’s what Communist atheism is all about.  Just look at Solzinetzyn’s books. This is what they do. But so many people said: Oh, they will become milder and gentler. None of that happened. They became stronger. And look at Taiwan now—right in the crosshairs. So, I think now—and I’ve heard many members—and I’ve never named their names, past and present, who said: What a mistake not to insist on trade and human rights.”     

Jeffrey: “So, there’s been a good shift in the Republican Party on the Hill on this?”

Smith: “Definitely. A very profound shift. And you know I worked very closely, I’ve chaired the China Commission. I’m now the ranking member on it. Marco Rubio has chaired it. He is the ranking member on the Senate side. It’s a bicameral commission. We work very closely and he gets it completely as well. And, you know, there is some bipartisanship, thankfully, on this. But I think, at State Department and other places—the White House--what did the president in his most recent call talk to when he had that long conversation with Xi Jinping. We have no idea. No idea. And I’m very worried about Taiwan. And as we talk, the Uighurs are being decimated in the genocide.”

Jeffrey: “Congressman, I very much appreciate this conversation. And thank you for all the good work you do.”

Smith: “Thank you. And thanks for having me. And keep your writing. I love your incisive writing.”

Jeffrey: “Thank you very much.” 

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