Congress is demanding answers from the Biden administration following a disclosure that reams of biometric data abandoned by the United States during its bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan are being used by the Taliban to target American allies still stuck in the war-torn nation.
Eight Republican senators led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) are asking the State and Defense Departments to turn over information related to the evacuation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan that allowed the Taliban to retake control of the country. In addition to leaving behind $7 billion worth of military hardware, the United States abandoned “sensitive data, including biometric data,” on Afghan allies that are now reportedly being used by the Taliban to target those who supported the United States’ 20-year war in the country.
“These systems, which were abandoned when the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, contained iris scans, fingerprints, photographs, occupational data, home addresses, and names of relatives,” the senators wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon. “The Taliban is using this personal information to increase targeted killings, torture, and forced disappearances of Afghans who helped the United States.” The senators warned that “the Taliban will continue to target the vulnerable with equipment and information that the Biden Administration left behind.”
The probe comes just weeks after Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization, released a bombshell report detailing how the Taliban is using abandoned biometric data to eradicate those who worked alongside the United States.
With the international community focused on Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine, the Taliban has increased its assault on U.S. allies stuck in Afghanistan. An unknown number of Afghan citizens who aided the United States remain in hiding as the Taliban uses the U.S. government’s own data to abduct these individuals. The senators’ investigation into the matter is the latest Republican effort to unearth the extent of damage caused by the Biden administration’s decision to evacuate Afghanistan.
Blackburn and her colleagues are instructing the Pentagon and State Department to explain the “policies and procedures governing when and how the U.S. collects sensitive data, including biometric data, of individuals working with the American military around the globe, including those who supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.” They expect this information will help prevent a future situation in which sensitive government data fall into enemy hands.
The senators also want to know what safeguards are in place to secure these data. “Where is such data stored and how is it disposed of in the event of mission changes or unintended transfers of control of the data?” they asked.
They want the Biden administration to explain whether it has any plans in place “to help our Afghan partners that are being targeted with this information.” The Biden administration has been mostly silent about the crisis in Afghanistan since U.S. troops left the country, stranding scores of Americans and Afghan allies.
“What future steps will the administration take to improve its data collection and retention policies to be sure this does not happen again in places where we are militarily involved?” the lawmakers wrote.
Human Rights Watch, in its latest report, spoke with a range of well-placed Afghans about the Taliban’s abuse of the abandoned biometric databases. This included 12 Afghans with knowledge of the database, 6 of them judges; multiple human rights researchers who have documented the Taliban’s exploitation of this information; and U.S. military officials formerly based in the country.
“A former military commander still in Afghanistan said that Taliban detained him for 12 days in November and took his fingerprints and scanned his irises with a data-collection tool,” according to the report. “They told me they took my fingerprints to check if I was military and if they could confirm it, they would kill me,” the official was quoted as saying. “I was very lucky that for some reason they did not get a match.”
“The Taliban’s access to this data comes at a time when they are targeting individuals because of their past association with the former government, particularly members of the security forces, judges and prosecutors, and civil servants, including women working in these fields,” the report notes. “Taliban access to these systems may make it much harder, or impossible, for these people to remain hidden.”