This month, IRAP submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records that would shed much-needed light on the activities of the National Vetting Center and its oversight board, the National Vetting Governance Board.
The Trump Administration created the Vetting Center and the Board in February 2018 through a presidential memorandum. Ostensibly, the goal of the new entities was “to coordinate the management and governance of the national vetting enterprise” by creating “an integrated approach to use data held across national security components.” The Vetting Center was tasked with creating and maintaining a central database for vetting, and the Board was tasked with overseeing, reviewing, and approving the Vetting Center’s activities.
President Biden has indicated that he intends to not only continue the Vetting Center, but to expand its powers, including giving it authority over refugee vetting. In January 2021, the Biden Administration tasked the Board with conducting a review of the security vetting of refugees, with the stated goal of ensuring that the vetting process is “efficient, meaningful, and fair.” The result of this review is still unknown.
IRAP would welcome a Vetting Center and Board as part of an ongoing oversight mechanism to ensure that security checks are efficient, meaningful, and fair. These new entities could increase the transparency of the opaque vetting process by publishing key agency policies and practices, reporting on vetting backlogs and engaging in rule-making. For too long, IRAP clients have been forced to put their lives on hold, waiting through years-long delays for security checks that are duplicative and opaque. In fact, IRAP has previously recommended these precise measures, and we believe that it may be possible for the Vetting Center and Board to serve that purpose.
However, in its current form and based on what is known publicly, the Vetting Center and Board cannot serve that goal. Far from promoting transparency, under the Trump Administration, these new bureaucratic structures served only as another Sisyphean layer obfuscating an already opaque vetting system. In August 2018, the Board executed its Charter, and President Trump approved an Implementation Plan outlining the basic operations of the National Vetting Center in its first phases. However, in the intervening years, neither the Vetting Center nor the Board have provided any updated public information about their activities. No subsequent updates to the plan have been publicized, no Board minutes have been made available, and no reports or recommendations regarding vetting activities have been made public. Moreover, there is no indication that the Board or Vetting Center have taken any of the steps required by the Freedom of Information Act to promote government transparency, including designating a Chief FOIA Officer and creating a process for submitting FOIA requests. Meanwhile, despite the lack of any tangible or known results, the Vetting Center receives substantial funding from Congress, which continues to increase each year.
While IRAP applauds efforts to improve the efficiency and transparency of the vetting process, the National Vetting Center and National Vetting Governance Board cannot serve that purpose while their own activities suffer from the very same lack of transparency that plagues the security vetting systems they intend to review. We urge the Vetting Center and Board to operate with the transparency required to make meaningful improvements to the refugee admissions program. By filing this FOIA request, we hope to allow the Vetting Center and Board an opportunity to do just that.