The Be-On-the-Look-Out bulletin, or BOLO, is the modern-day equivalent of a “WANTED” poster,shared between different federal agencies to help track down fugitives or missing persons within the United States.
These 17 faces are not those of terrorists, according to the U.S. government. They are missing Afghani military members, and, the moment they walked off base where they were training, they became illegal immigrants. And wanted men.
Since it was first reported by FOX News a few weeks ago, the BOLO, and the news it heralds, has caused a stir among government and military officials, catching the attention of members of Congress.
It was issued by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to alert military professionals that the men had gone missing from the Defense Language Institute’s campus at Lackland Air Force Base.
At the institute outside San Antonio, Texas, the Afghan troops were in the middle of, or in some cases had graduated from, an English language-training program that would allow them to go on to other U.S. military educational facilities, anywhere from dental training school to the War College. At the end of their education, they were supposed to return to Afghanistan, where they would help American and NATO forces fight the insurgency and stabilize the country.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation,” said Capt. John Severns, spokesman for Air Education and Training Command, which runs Lackland Air Force Base. He said once they went missing, though, the Afghan soldiers fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.
Perhaps the bulletin’s most interesting effect has been to illuminate the murky communications between the tangle of military and government agencies that are handling the issue.
“There are a lot of hands in this,” said one defense official with knowledge of the matter, asking not to be named because his agency did not currently have jurisdiction over the Afghan fugitives. He suggested a number for the NATO agency called the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which brought the Afghan men to the U.S. The U.S. number for that agency did not work.
He confirmed that the NCIS bulletin was incomplete and outdated in that it only reported 17 Afghan individuals, when there have been 46 who have gone missing between 2007 and 2009. He said of the 17 named, all but four had been found – many are seeking asylum in Canada. He had no knowledge of what prompted NCIS to issue the bulletin at the time it did.
He and other military officials said they were not concerned that the absences were a threat to security, though. All access privileges are revoked and ID cards inactivated once a person disappears, he said.
At Lackland, Air Force officials can only try to discourage the students who are still there from deserting.
And keeping them under lock and key is out of the question, Severns said.
“They’re students, not prisoners,” he said.
But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has concerns about the security implications of the disappearances. Smith, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, has called for the Air Force and Department of Homeland Security to brief Congress on the issue.
“It’s no surprise that individuals who come to the U.S. legally on visas decide to stay illegally. But when those individuals are foreign military officers – with special access to military facilities – it creates a serious national security threat to American communities,” he said in a statement.
It is not uncommon for foreign nationals brought to the U.S. by the military for schooling to decide they like it enough to stay against their visas. According to Air Force and Defense officials, it’s been happening for decades, with many just staying under the radar or heading to Canada.
“People jumping ship is pretty common,” said Muzaffar Chista, Director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law, speaking generally about the phenomenon in immigration and U.S. history.
He said the Afghan military members were somewhat similar to stowaways, people who stay on board a vessel just long enough to reach a port where they disembark – and then disappear into the crowd.