U.S. Screening on Foreign Projects Roils Aid Groups


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A United States Agency for International Development official in Nepal. The agency is collecting data on people working on government-funded projects to ensure no money goes to terrorists.

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Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A new federal screening program designed to ferret out terrorists working for government-backed nonprofit organizations is drawing sharp criticism from groups that say the vetting is overly intrusive, undermines their mission, and may endanger the lives of their employees.

The Partner Vetting System, run by the United States Agency for International Development, requires for the first time that nonprofit organizations collect detailed personal data — including biographical information and bank account numbers — on each officer, board member and vital employee associated with aid projects funded by the United States. That information is then shared within the United States government.

Officials process the data through classified intelligence and law enforcement databases to determine whether the individual or organization has connections to a terrorist group.

The program, which was authorized by Congress and went into effect June 27, will initially operate in five countries — Kenya, Guatemala, Lebanon, the Philippines and Ukraine — but could be expanded, officials said. The government has operated similar screening programs in Afghanistan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for years.

Though there have been no documented examples of United States aid ending up in the hands of terrorists or terrorist organizations, officials say the program is needed.

“U.S.A.I.D. exercises strict measures to prohibit our resources from funding terrorists,” said Benjamin Edwards, an agency spokesman. “We also work to limit the impact of these measures on our partners so we can safely deliver development assistance around the world.”

But critics, like Samuel A. Worthington, the president of InterAction, an umbrella group of humanitarian organizations, say the vast collection of information on foreign aid workers could have devastating consequences on those risking their lives in conflict zones, where they could be viewed as agents of United States intelligence organizations.

Many groups point to Pakistan, which accused international aid organizations of covering for spy operations after a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, was said to have helped United States officials find Osama bin Laden under the cover of a hepatitis vaccination campaign.

In June, the Pakistani government briefly shut down the offices of Save the Children, saying the group was involved in “antistate activities.” The Pakistani Interior Ministry accused the group of being involved with the C.I.A. Save the Children denied the accusation.

Health workers have since become targets of militant groups like the Taliban, and almost 80 have been accused of being spies and killed nationwide since December 2012.

According to data compiled by aid groups, in 2013, the most recent year with complete data, 460 aid workers were victims of attacks: 155 were killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped. That was a 66 percent increase in the number of victims from 2012. Aid groups said being forced to collect data that could be used by United States intelligence agencies could lead to more attacks.

“We are vehemently opposed to this program,” Mr. Worthington said. “Aid is supposed to be done separately from intelligence.”

The aid groups, which depend largely on local employees in the countries where they operate, say the sweeping data collection could end up working against American interests. Local groups could refuse to work with American-funded organizations and programs for fear of having their names become part of government intelligence databases.

The program has already prompted several aid groups to pull out of projects funded by the United States government.

In Afghanistan, Mercy Corps backed out of a $38 million U.S.A.I.D.-funded program to help farmers in four northeastern provinces because it did not want to turn over names of its local partners under the Partner Vetting System. “The requirements of P.V.S. will undermine the trust that communities where we work have in us,” said Craig Redmond, senior vice president of programs at Mercy Corps.

Mr. Redmond said the organization was also concerned that the screening program could affect its work in war-torn eastern Ukraine, where the group is using a $2.5 million U.S.A.I.D. grant to deliver food and help repair water and sewer lines.

“We cannot help innocent Ukrainian civilians who are impacted by the conflict if there is even a whisper that humanitarian groups are possibly collecting personal data for any side,” he said.

Save the Children said that in 2011, it turned down a $5 million grant from U.S.A.I.D. for work in Afghanistan.

Officials with the United States Agency for International Development said they had taken great care to limit the effects of the evaluation program, and had strict controls in place to limit access to the data. The program has helped stop about $600 million in United States aid from ending up in the hands of individuals or organizations suspected of being terrorists or supporting terrorism, they said, mostly in Afghanistan. The agency did not say over what period of time this had been done.

Officials said the evaluation program should not be characterized as an intelligence-gathering system, even though they conceded that the data could be used to update information on individuals or organizations in classified intelligence databases.

Private groups also say the system is needed.

“Based on security concerns and the risk of funding terrorists, the U.S.A.I.D. program is much needed and should be the standard for all contracts performed abroad, especially in regions with a high incidence of terrorism,” said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group.

Mr. Worthington, of InterAction, said aid groups had long screened local partners by running their names through publicly available databases at the Treasury Department and through long-established relationships developed over years of working in countries.

The debate, he said, is not so much about “vetting happening versus it not happening, it’s about how it should happen.”



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