U.S. Delays Terror Screening for Aid Groups
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The Bush administration has decided to defer the start of a new security screening program for thousands of officials of organizations seeking funds from the Agency for International Development until it reviews all the comments from those affected, according to USAID's acting deputy administrator, James Kunder.
Although USAID said in a Federal Register notice last month that the program would become effective yesterday, Kunder said in a telephone interview that it "would be effective, but not operational" until there is "a systematic review" of the views of the private organizations involved.
The screening plan would affect top officials and board members of foreign aid groups, and it has been highly controversial, attracting opposition from InterAction, representing 165 aid groups, and from the Global Health Council, a membership alliance of public health professionals in more than 100 countries. Yesterday was the last day for organizations to comment on the proposal, according to the notice, but Kunder said comments will now be accepted through the end of next month.
Kunder and representatives of USAID's security office will meet today at the agency's headquarters with organizations that sent comments in response to the July 17 notice. It will be the first time that the program, called the Partner Vetting System, is discussed with a broad group of those affected, said a top official of one of the organizations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to hurt his relationship with the government.
The plan would require charities, religious organizations, colleges and universities, and corporations seeking foreign aid funds to give the government detailed information about key personnel, including dates and places of birth, employment, citizenship, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. The government would send that information to the FBI, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but would shroud the results in secrecy by not telling the groups deemed unacceptable why they were rejected.
The data "will be used to conduct national security screening" to ensure that these persons have no connection to entities or individuals "associated with terrorism" or "deemed to be a risk to national security," according to the Federal Register notice. The notice estimated that 2,000 individuals could be screened.
Kunder said his agency is working in countries "where terrorism is a major concern" and is carrying out programs that are "undermining causes of extremism." The screening program, he said, would try to make sure that, "in those environments, taxpayer dollars are not going into terrorist organizations."
Under present security rules, organizations doing business with USAID are required to certify that they have checked their personnel and partners against government terrorist lists and found no connections. Under the proposal, organizations would be required to file information on each officer, board member and key employee, and on those associated with an application for aid funds or managing a funded project.
Kunder said the scope of people covered is being studied and may "depend on the organization . . . the chiefs down to the level of major players in projects and folks involved in the programs." He also said it could depend on the country where the aid program operates. Congressional aides have been told that a closer look would be taken when projects are in sensitive countries such as Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Private organizations have particularly wondered who would decide whether groups are qualified to receive grants. The decisions would be based on information from the FBI or others as to whether a person is connected "inadvertently or otherwise . . . to individuals associated with terrorism," according to the notice.
Kunder said it would be up to "our security office to take that data and make the determination." He also said USAID is still considering whether it could confirm or deny that individuals passed the screening.