The Obama administration has dramatically slowed the resettlement of Iraqi refugees — including former U.S. military translators and embassy workers — in the midst of growing concerns about al-Qaeda's potential ties with some asylum seekers, an administration official says.
Two Iraqi refugees who resettled in the United States in 2009 were arrested in May in Bowling Green, Ky., and are accused of plotting to send weapons and cash to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, says that intelligence indicates the threat is much broader than the two refugees.Authorities learned of the Kentucky plot through intelligence gleaned in late 2010, the official said.
"That threat stream led us to re-examine our vetting process for this population and really all of the refugee population," the official said.FBI Director Robert Mueller noted last year before the Kentucky arrests that a potential threat rested with "individuals who may have been resettled here in the United States that have had some association with al-Qaeda in Iraq."
After more than 36,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the USA between October 2008 and September 2010, only 9,400 refugees were resettled here the following year. In the last three months of 2011, only 826 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the United States, according to the State Department.
Fingerprints of one of the Kentucky suspects, Waad Ramadan Alwan, were found on a component of a roadside bomb discovered by U.S. troops in Iraq before he arrived in the United States. But the prints were not in any of the databases that visa applicants were automatically checked against.
Alwan pleaded guilty in federal court in December to conspiring to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
Neither man had worked for U.S. organizations in Iraq. Both received refugee status for humanitarian reasons.In September, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate panel that security checks have been expanded and that more than 57,000 who were already in the United States have been revetted.
The U.S. government implemented additional security procedures in February 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Checks are run twice, once before a refugee is interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and a second time shortly before departure.
The details of what the enhanced security checks entail are not shared publicly, but refugee information is likely being checked against security, forensic and intelligence databases that were not among those covered by the other security checks, according to the UNHCR.
The enhanced checks have left thousands of Iraqis referred for resettlement in the USA by UNHCR in a state of limbo. As of Jan. 23, there were more than 29,000 Iraqis who had passed their DHS interview, but 621 had all of their clearances, according to the State Department Refugee Processing Center.
"Of course we support the U.S. and all countries having security checks," UNHCR spokeswoman Charity Tooze said. "It seems that in this instance the net is so wide a huge amount of people who we don't see as a security threat are getting caught in it."
Iraqi refugee advocates also note that many of the applicants in the pipeline include men and women who put their lives on the line as interpreters and advisers to U.S. troops and diplomats during the war. The slowdown also puts President Obama, who during his run for the White House blasted the George W. Bush administration for doing too little to protect Iraqis who assisted the U.S. mission in Iraq, in an awkward position.
Kirk Johnson, who heads the refugee advocacy group the Iraq List Project, said he now tells Iraqis seeking resettlement not to count on America."Unfortunately, there is no incentive for the administration to act more swiftly on this," Johnson said. "The urgency is lost."
The Obama administration has held several interagency meetings on the issue since last summer and is trying to come up with a solution that balances national security with its moral obligation to assist Iraqis who cannot safely live in their country, administration officials say.
"We are constantly reviewing our practices and procedures, because we recognize our responsibility to keeping Americans safe," said Deborah Sisbarro, a spokeswoman for the State Department's refugee bureau. "At the same time, we remain committed to the Iraqis who worked with us, the Iraqis who are vulnerable, and to Iraqis that remain under threat. We have to balance these two priorities."
Advocates had met with Obama's deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, said Becca Heller, who heads the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and attended the White House meeting.
McDonough, who told attendees that his family sponsored refugees when he was growing up, acknowledged the frustration of advocates, while also stressing the administration's obligation to ensure the nation's security."He told us that the issue was getting attention at the highest level, but they don't know when it will be resolved and they don't know if we'll love what their resolution is," Heller said.
Richard Welch, a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel who completed his last tour of duty in Iraq in December, said the administration has not only a moral obligation to help resettle Iraqis who worked for the U.S. mission during the war, but it's also strategically important.
More than 18,000 of the 62,000 Iraqis resettled in the United States since 2007 won visas through programs that were made available to applicants affiliated with the U.S. military or other American organizations. Applicants who worked for the U.S. Embassy or military also went through rigorous background checks in Iraq in order to secure employment, Welch noted.
"How does this look to the people in Afghanistan who we're asking to work with us?" Welch said.