Foreign Aid Groups Face Terror Screens

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Bush administration plans to screen thousands of people who work with charities and nonprofit organizations that receive U.S. Agency for International Development funds to ensure they are not connected with individuals or groups associated with terrorism, according to a recent Federal Register notice.

The plan would require the organizations to give the government detailed information about key personnel, including phone numbers, birth dates and e-mail addresses. But the government plans to shroud its use of that information in secrecy and does not intend to tell groups deemed unacceptable why they are rejected.

The plan has aroused concern and debate among some of the larger U.S. charitable organizations and recipients of AID funding. Officials of InterAction, representing 165 foreign aid groups, said last week that the plan would impose undue burdens and has no statutory basis. The organization requested that it be withdrawn.

"We don't know who will do the vetting, what the standards are and whether we could answer any allegation," said an executive for a major nongovernmental organization that would be subject to the new requirements and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to harm his organization's relations with the government.

The Global Health Council, an international membership alliance of public health professionals in more than 100 countries, yesterday described the plan as "a sweeping information-gathering and recordkeeping measure that would impose a high administrative burden."

The Federal Register notice said the program could involve 2,000 respondents and "will become effective on August 27," the last day that public comments about it are to be submitted. Harry Edwards, a spokesman for USAID, said yesterday that the agency may not stick to that starting date, but he said the agency would not discuss the origins or any details of the program until the comment period concludes.

The program is described in the notice as the Partner Vetting System. It demands for the first time that nongovernmental organizations file information with the government on each officer, board member and key employee and those associated with an application for AID funds or managing a project when funded.

The information is to include name, address, date and place of birth, citizenship, Social Security and passport numbers, sex, and profession or other employment data. The data collected "will be used to conduct national security screening" to ensure these persons have no connection to entities or individuals "associated with terrorism" or "deemed to be a risk to national security," according to the notice.

Such screening normally involves sending the data to the FBI and other police and intelligence agencies to see if negative information surfaces.

The new system would also require that the groups turn over the individuals' telephone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses, another indication that those numbers would be checked against data collected as part of a terrorist screening program run by the U.S. intelligence community.

Until now, under an earlier Bush administration initiative, nongovernmental organizations had been required to check their own employees and then certify to AID that they were certain no one was associated with individuals or groups that appeared on applicable governmental terrorist listings.

The far broader proposed vetting program would involve U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies and could result in the denial of applications for funding. But AID is also seeking to withhold any of its findings from disclosure because the decision would be based on "classified and sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information," according to a second Federal Register notice seeking exemption for the program from the Privacy Act.

"USAID cannot confirm or deny whether an individual 'passed' or 'failed' screening," the notice says, to protect "counterterrorism and counterintelligence missions as well as the personal safety of those involved in counterterrorism investigations."

According to the federal notice, the new system has its roots in a 2003 congressional amendment, attached to the foreign operations appropriations bill, that required the secretary of state to "take all appropriate steps" to ensure that U.S. funds involved in the West Bank and Gaza Strip program do not reach any person or group that is known or "there is reason to believe advocates, plans, sponsors, engages in or has engaged in terrorist activities."

A 2005 Government Accountability Office study of the West Bank and Gaza assistance program found inconsistencies in its implementation, particularly with AID's scrutiny of sub-awardees and consulting agreements. AID's office there responded by collecting more complete biographical data and verifying information provided by awardees.

AID officials told the GAO that six organizations that had been cleared to receive U.S. assistance were later found to have possible links to terrorists, including Hamas. One group never received any funds, three of the projects had already been finished, one contract was canceled, and the remaining one was cleared to continue after further investigation.

Samuel A. Worthington, InterAction's president, wrote AID last week requesting that the new vetting system -- known as PVS -- be withdrawn and urging a dialogue about it. In a telephone interview yesterday, Worthington said, "We had been aware internal discussions about PVS were underway, but when we asked we were told that AID had to talk to everyone or to no one."

Worthington, who is also chief executive officer of Plan USA, a 62-country, child-focused development organization with an annual budget of more than $530 million, said that "USAID has not demonstrated a need for such a system." He also said that there is no statutory basis for the program and that it would place a major burden on nongovernmental organizations whose workforces include as many as 20,000 employees.

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