Thanks in part to loud protests by charities, the U.S. Agency for International Development said it has postponed the start of a controversial plan to screen nonprofit organizations for ties to terrorists.
The proposed screening effort, known as the Partner Vetting System, will not begin until the aid agency reviews all comments from charities and others affected by it, James Kunder, the aid agency’s acting deputy administrator, told The Washington Post in an article published today.
In addition, Mr. Kunder said the government organization has extended the time period it will accept public input on the program, until September 30.
However, Harry Edwards, a spokesman for the Agency for International Development, told The Chronicle that he could not confirm Mr. Kunder’s comments.
With the system on hold, charity leaders said they will continue to push government officials to scrap it altogether. “What we like them to do now is to drop the rule, and then we’re entertaining all options if they don’t,” including enlisting members of Congress to fight the program, said Samuel A. Worthington, the president of InterAction, a Washington coalition of about 160 charities.
Mr. Worthington, who met with U.S. foreign aid officials this morning, said that despite the protests of relief groups, universities, and others that receive funds from the aid agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others in the Bush administration are strongly supportive of the vetting system. He said some of InterAction’s members would refuse money from the agency if the screening were to begin.
The Partner Vetting System was supposed to have started August 27, according to a Federal Register notice published last month that first outlined the antiterrorism program.
The system would require nonprofit groups and companies that apply for grants, contracts, or other financial partnerships with the agency to provide personal information about all employees, executives, trustees, and possibly even aid recipients.
The information would include Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, nationalities, e-mail addresses, and birth dates and would be vetted for possible connections to individuals or groups designated as terrorists by the federal government.
Under current regulations, the agency requires that recipients of federal funds vet staff members on their own and certify to the government that no one associated with the organizations appears on terrorist watch lists.
The new proposal has outraged international relief and development groups.
“The administration sees a terrorist under every bedcover,” said Philip D. Harvey, president of DKT International, an aid organization in Washington that operates in 11 countries. “The paranoia is getting awfully distressing.”
DKT currently has a $500,000 grant from the agency for a family-planning program in India, and Mr. Harvey says he is unsure he would comply with the Partner Vetting Service it if were to start.
Charities said the most disturbing detail of the proposed program is that the federal agency has requested that the Partner Vetting System be exempt from the Privacy Act, a 1974 law that prevents law-enforcement authorities from maintaining files on Americans not suspected of a crime.
In addition, since the screenings may be based on classified information, “U.S. AID cannot confirm or deny whether an individual ‘passed or ‘failed’ screening,” it said in the July 20 notice.
Mr. Worthington, of InterAction, said because groups and their employees would be ignorant of their status in the system, it robs them of their legal rights.
“This lack of due process exposes individuals and NGO’s to loss of employment and USAID contracts without effective recourse,” he writes in a letter sent this month to the Agency for International Development.
What’s more, Mr. Worthington said the Partner Vetting System would be an administrative burden on charities, was proposed without consultation with relief and development organizations, and possibly would place aid workers’ lives in jeopardy.
Since charity officials would have to provide information about foreign colleagues and others, they would be seen as an arm of the U.S. government and “terrorist attacks against them can only increase,” he writes.
Mr. Harvey, of DKT, said the new program is reminiscent of the agency’s requirement that organizations that receive money to fight HIV/AIDS abroad sign an antiprostitution pledge.
(DKT sued the agency for the pledge requirement, but a federal appeals court tossed out the lawsuit this year. A separate lawsuit filed by three other nonprofit groups challenging the antiprostitution rule is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York.)
With such requirements, Mr. Harvey said the Agency for International Development is sending a bad message to charities. “It doesn’t want partners,” he said, “it wants lackeys.”
The notice proposing the new program is available on the Federal Register’s Web site by searching under “Partner Vetting System.”
A copy of Mr. Worthington’s letter is available on InterAction’s Web site.