USAID Temporarily Delays Implementation of Partner Vetting System

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has agreed to temporarily delay implementation of a new database, called the Partner Vetting System (PVS), that would "[ensure] that neither USAID funds nor USAID-funded activities inadvertently or otherwise provide support to entities or individuals associated with terrorism." Under the plan, initially announced on July 17, all nonprofits that apply for grants, contracts or other financial partnership with USAID would have to provide the government with highly detailed personal information about employees, executives, trustees, subcontractors and others associated with the organization. On July 20, USAID also proposed to exempt portions of the PVS database from the Privacy Act. USAID is accepting comment on the Privacy Act exemption until Sept. 18. Charities are actively objecting to this burdensome and unwarranted program in which thousands of nonprofit workers would have to be screened. USAID is moving forward with a pilot program for aid recipients working in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before expanding it globally as first intended.

The information USAID would collect under the PVS includes phone numbers, date and place of birth, e-mail addresses, nationality, gender, profession, citizenship, and government issued identification (such as Social Security numbers and passport numbers), which would be vetted for possible connections to individuals or groups designated as terrorists by the federal government. Organizations would be forced to maintain far-reaching records, imposing a great administrative burden. Resources meant for charitable works inevitably would be stretched thin, especially in smaller organizations.

Congressional spending bills since 2003 have required the Secretary of State to take "appropriate steps to ensure that such assistance is not provided to or through any individual, private or government entity, or education institution that the Secretary knows or has reason to believe advocates, plans, sponsors, engages in, or has engaged in, terrorist activity." A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticized USAID's implementation of these requirements. However, the GAO report did not make any recommendation to expand the PVS program globally.

There are many reasons the charitable community has protested this proposal. One main concern is that there has simply been no evidence that USAID funds are going to terrorist organizations. According to the most recent USAID Office of Inspector General report, which covers October 2006 to the end of March 2007, "OIG oversight activities during this period did not identify any instances where terrorist organizations received USAID funds." USAID audit procedures should be enough to prevent terrorist financing.

InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based foreign aid groups including many that receive USAID funding, sent a letter to the Chief Privacy Officer at USAID asking that the plan be withdrawn. The coalition's letter states, "There is no statutory basis for the PVS or any similar system outside of, arguably, the West Bank and Gaza. The fact that Congress has not required such measures elsewhere indicates the proposed system has not been deemed necessary by our national legislature. Nor is it required by Executive Order 13224."

The letter InterAction submitted also makes the important point that the lives of those working in particular areas may be put at increased risk. "If they are perceived to be extension of the U.S. intelligence community, terrorist attacks against them can only increase."

An alarming aspect of the PVS as USAID noted in its proposal to exempt the program from the Privacy Act is that "USAID cannot confirm or deny whether an individual 'passed' or 'failed' screening." This secrecy was part of the focus of comments OMB Watch submitted to USAID, which stated, "PVS will more than likely result in the creation of a secret USAID blacklist of ineligible grant applicants, based on PVS results. Organizations and individuals erroneously listed as having ties with terrorism will have no way of knowing they are deemed as such, or why. Innocent and well deserving grantees will have no formal means of appealing such decisions."

The program was proposed without any consultation with relief and development organizations, and it seemingly was intended to begin without any consultation. The program was originally scheduled to go into effect the day public comments were due, Aug. 27, suggesting the agency had no intention of considering the concerns of the charitable community. However, USAID said it would delay implementing the program until comments were reviewed. The program has been cut back to begin first as a pilot program in West Bank/Gaza. After reviewing the pilot program and the written comments received, the agency would implement the program globally. In addition, after receiving such outspoken protest, USAID also agreed to meet with some representatives of organizations that submitted comments.

According to the Washington Post, at the meeting, USAID officials explained the pilot program for recipients of grants and contracts in the West Bank and Gaza. The USAID presentation referenced a report by the Palestinian Media Watch, an Israel-based organization that was also pushing for the program. The report stated that Al-Quds Open University, a USAID recipient, "hosts branches of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror organizations." It also protested USAID's plan to provide $2.4 million in scholarships for about 2,000 Palestinian students without a guarantee that recipients have not voted for Hamas in any election. The fact that the U.S. government is responding to the appeals of an organization which is concerned about the political beliefs of students who receive scholarship money from U.S. funds and may or may not have voted for Hamas is disturbing. This politicizes aid and violates the principle of a secret ballot.

The notice in the Federal Register left many with unanswered questions because the language is so vague and open-ended. For example, who would decide whether groups are qualified to receive grants? What does "associated with terrorism" mean, and how will it be determined? If one person is suspect, would an entire organization be banned from receiving any USAID funds completely? USAID has not provided any information regarding how an individual or the organization would be able to provide any defense. Whom will be vetted — every employee of an organization? If the program is about stopping money from going to terrorists, or those associated with terrorists, such a vetting program should also be applied to government contractors working in those areas as well since they are just as likely as charities to be infiltrated with ties to terrorists.

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