Sen. Ron Johnson visits Fort McCoy as Afghan refugees arrive, raises concerns over the vetting process

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FORT MCCOY, Wis. (CBS 58) -- U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and five Republican state lawmakers visited Fort McCoy on Wednesday, Aug. 25 to see firsthand how Afghan refugees are being housed and supported after fleeing their country.

Johnson, who's been critical of President Biden's evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, said he toured Fort McCoy by car and met with Maj. Gen. Darrell Guthrie and other federal officials.

A little more than 1,000 people are currently housed there, Johnson said, and the base has a capacity of up to 10,000.

"It certainly sounds like the first group are people who are just relieved to have been able to escape Afghanistan. They won the lottery, they’re here in America," Johnson said.

Johnson was joined on the tour with State Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), Rep. Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua), State Rep. Nancy Vandermeer (R-Tomah) and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc).

"We saw a number of refugees, of a very diverse background, some women, children, families, single adults and there's going to be more that comes in," said Sen. Testin.

Lawmakers were told by officials it's unlikely all the refugees housed at Fort McCoy will stay in Wisconsin, instead, many will be relocated to different parts of the country.

Those who visited the military base said they were impressed by the conditions and the quick turnaround service members had to prepare for arrivals, which Johnson said was a 10-day notice. 

With U.S. agencies rushing to complete security vetting of thousands of Afghanistan citizens, Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the risk that terrorists and criminals could slip through the process.

"The urgency is to make sure we vet everybody," said Johnson. "It would be nice if we knew everyone had an identification card, I'm hearing they don't."

Johnson said he got his information from sources, but did not provide names. He added Fort McCoy officials "couldn't answer that question," regarding how many have IDs.

On Sunday, President Joe Biden emphasized Afghan refugees will be thoroughly vetted before arriving in the U.S. with biometric and biographic screenings to ensure their identity.

Johnson suggested the administration should send Afghan veterans to help identify those who assisted U.S. troops.

The chaotic withdrawal and ensuring evacuations go smoothly has some Republicans doubting the process, fearing it could have serious security implications without providing any evidence.

"We have to be perfect when it comes to the vetting process, if we're not perfect, we run the risk of another terrorist attack in this country," said Sen. Marklein.

Lawmakers also shared refugees are getting two hot meals a day, and officials hope to get that up to three in the near future.

Sen. Testin, who accused Gov. Tony Evers last week of not doing enough to prepare for arrivals, got some clarity from officials that refugees are getting proper health screenings including COVID-19 tests and being offered vaccinations.

"The medial team is doing a good job," Testin said. " I'm confident that General Guthrie will continue to execute this mission."

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