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He Calls Home, Raising a Red Flag for the Army

One Army recruit was flagged because he sent his parents in India money to move into a modern apartment. Another was faulted for calling his mother in Myanmar every week and for playing video games with noncitizens. And one was labeled a major security risk after an interviewer conducting a counterintelligence screening told a joke and the recruit didn’t laugh.

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Dave Philipps
, New York Times

One Army recruit was flagged because he sent his parents in India money to move into a modern apartment. Another was faulted for calling his mother in Myanmar every week and for playing video games with noncitizens. And one was labeled a major security risk after an interviewer conducting a counterintelligence screening told a joke and the recruit didn’t laugh.

“Absolutely no reaction,” the interviewer noted in a declassified report. “Lack of interpersonal communication and interaction skills.”

All three enlisted in the military under a special program known as MAVNI that promises immigrants with valuable language and medical skills a fast track to citizenship. And all three were labeled security threats by a Defense Department vetting system that has become increasingly strict since 2016.

In recent months the Army has abruptly discharged scores of otherwise qualified immigrant recruits because of their foreign ties, some on grounds that seem trivial or erroneous. And scores more are in limbo over the issue.

The Defense Department, facing multiple lawsuits, backpedaled this month and halted the discharges while it reviewed the issue. It announced in a court filing this week that it had reinstated three dozen discharged MAVNI recruits and suspended discharge proceedings against 149 others.

The military maintains that its strict vetting, which has led to lengthy backlogs and delays and has snagged the enlistment of at least one-third of current MAVNI recruits, is necessary to weed out immigrants who might harm national security.

But many of the immigrant recruits who have been flagged as security risks did not have any ties to terrorist groups or foreign intelligence agencies turn up in their background checks. Instead, declassified reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the recruits show they were being faulted for routine phone calls to overseas relatives or mundane financial connections with their birth countries. The reports also appeared to be rife with errors, sometimes including the recruit’s country of origin.

Maj. Carla Gleason, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said the military had no plans to change its screening policy. “All recruits, including MAVNI recruits, must meet the high standards and qualifications for military service,” Gleason said in a statement. “If a background investigation reveals information that disqualifies a particular MAVNI recruit from military service, then that recruit, like any other recruit with a similar disqualification, is either released from his or her enlistment contract or is separated from his or her respective service.”

But recruits who are U.S. citizens are generally not screened nearly as intensively. And when an immigrant recruit spots mistakes in a security report, there is no official channel for correcting them.

“I didn’t even recognize what I was reading,” said Suraj Adhikari, a recruit from Nepal who is serving in the Army Reserves and recently obtained the results of his counterintelligence assessment. It labeled him a “potential risk.”

Adhikari, the son of a sanitation worker and a schoolteacher, came to the United States on a student visa to study for a master’s degree in agricultural science. He is now working on a second degree in data analytics. He enlisted in the Army in 2016, attracted by the promise of U.S. citizenship, and drills regularly with his reserve unit in Omaha, Nebraska, where he is a supply chain specialist.

His counterintelligence report said he was a security risk because the Nepali government had paid for his undergraduate education and may have influence over him. But he said he had paid his own way through college.

“It’s completely baseless,” he said. “I can’t even understand where they got that information.”

The MAVNI program, short for Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, was created during the George W. Bush administration. More than 10,000 troops have enlisted through the program, almost all of them in the Army. In 2016, the Defense Department began requiring all MAVNI recruits to go through the lengthy interviews and background checks typically required only for troops needing top-secret clearance. Now, MAVNI troops are often more thoroughly investigated than the security staff who vet them.

The more intense scrutiny quickly led to a backlog of thousands of recruits awaiting clearance. Facing a lawsuit over the backlog in 2017, the Defense Department contracted to have newly trained interviewers rush through counterintelligence evaluations, according to Margaret Stock, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create the MAVNI program. She is now an immigration lawyer who represents a number of the program’s recruits.

“They were under the gun to get it done quickly,” Stock said of the interviewers. “The management was shoddy, the training was poor. They made a lot of mistakes that have ruined people’s lives.”

One of her clients is a 30-year-old research assistant from China who is working toward a doctorate in physics. The student’s recruiter wrote in a letter that he was “one of the best future soldiers in our station.” But a counterintelligence report on the student concluded that he was a major security risk.

The interviewer noted that the student had never worked for a foreign government, had never been arrested and had never used illegal drugs. But the unnamed interviewer, who acknowledged in the report that he or she was “not a medical professional,” nonetheless concluded from the student’s failure to laugh at a joke that he probably had autism.

Stock brushed that conclusion aside. “He’s not mentally ill, he’s just shy,” she said of her client. “And it was a bad joke. The fact they put that in a report just shows the ham-handed process they use.” The report also raised concerns about the student’s father, who worked for the Chinese army from 1978 to 1999. Stock said the father’s job had been to teach soldiers math.

Stock pointed to reports on other clients that she said were rife with errors and misinterpretations. One recruit from India was labeled a moderate risk on the grounds that his brother worked for the country’s prime minister; in fact, the brother is a clerk who processes pensions for railway workers.

The security concerns in the reports sometimes seem contradictory. One recruit from Turkey was labeled a major risk because his family was wealthy, with $700,000 in assets overseas, while another was seen as a risk because he had no assets, and therefore “a foreign entity could exploit, induce, manipulate or coerce him if he becomes too financially impaired.”

“Whatever you do or say, it will be used against you, it seems,” said Zhao, a Chinese graduate student and competitive swimmer who enlisted through the program as a combat medic. He spoke on the condition that his given name not be published, saying he feared retribution.

His report labeled him a major risk because he has two parents in China and thus “could be subject to influences through favors and advantageous promotions given to his family in his home country.”

Judging by the Army’s experience with thousands of MAVNI recruits, the security risk posed by immigrants is generally quite low, according to Naomi Verdugo, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who oversaw recruiting for more than a decade.

“We don’t see evidence the immigrants we are bringing in are less trustworthy; in fact, they are a higher quality than our average American recruits,” Verdugo said. “They are better educated, better behaved.”

In a closed Facebook group for MAVNI recruits, immigrants traded stories this week about their counterintelligence reports. One man from Myanmar said he was flagged because he “maintains weekly contact” with his parents back home.

“What’s this?” he posted. “Americans don’t talk to their parents? Wow, that’s really sad!”

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