- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, seeking to relieve a growing backlog, awarded citizenship to thousands of people without adequate background checks after compromising its own computer system.

The rushed program failed to address weaknesses INS knew would push the system beyond its limits, according to a stinging report yesterday by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General which faulted INS over its 1996 "Citizenship USA" program, during which more than 1 million people became U.S. citizens.

Acting Inspector General Robert L. Ashbaugh said that given the unrepaired deficiencies, INS put the "entire system and any hope for integrity in the adjudication of citizenship at great risk" in an effort to process massive numbers of pending cases.

"INS failed to address known system weaknesses before implementing a program it knew would tax that system as it never had been taxed before," said Mr. Ashbaugh, concerning the agency's largest probe ever. It is based on 1,800 interviews and a review of 80,000 pages of documents.

But the 684-page report cited no evidence that CUSA was implemented to further political ends, as charged by Republicans. The report said the INS program "did not result" in a lowering of standards or a change in procedures "to get more applicants naturalized in time for the 1996 election in the hope they would vote for the Democratic Party, as alleged."

Republicans had accused INS and Vice President Al Gore of rushing applicants through so they could vote for Democrats in November 1996. The National Performance Review, under the direction of Mr. Gore, had targeted the program for "reinvention."

The IG's office reviewed a number of interactions between Mr. Gore's staff and CUSA, including e-mail from Douglas Farbrother to the vice president voicing concerns the INS will achieve a goal to "produce a million new citizens before election day." The e-mail asks Mr. Gore to "blast INS loose from its grip on front-line managers" by appealing directly to INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner for help.

Mr. Gore responded, "We'll explore it. Thanks."

The IG's office found no wrongdoing by the White House or Mr. Gore, but said efforts by the vice president and NPR to reinvent government "did not improve" the program or enhance the quality of adjudications.

Mr. Gore declined to be interviewed by investigators, but said in a statement by his attorney that he did not recall discussing the matter with Mr. Farbrother.

The report did not list the number of adjudications affected, nor say how many approved for naturalization would have been ineligible had appropriate procedures been followed. But it noted that INS discovered 220,000 applications in Los Angeles and 50,000 in Miami had not been counted because they had not been entered into INS' record-keeping system.

In August 1995, Mrs. Meissner began CUSA to reduce a backlog of pending naturalization applications to the point where eligible applicants would be naturalized within six months. At the time, applicants waited three years from the date of application to be naturalized.

To reach its goal, INS increased its work force, opened new offices dedicated to adjudication and engaged new processing strategies to streamline the naturalization process.

But, the report said, hundreds of newly hired adjudicators were superficially trained and unprepared for anything but routine adjudications.

It said they worked without adequate supervision, including in New York, where 100 new workers worked under only six experienced employees. The report said many were led to believe it was quantity, not quality, that mattered and inquiries they made were limited by a lack of applicant criminal-history checks and permanent files.

The report said INS had been warned on weaknesses in its fingerprint-checking system, but failed to respond before launching CUSA. More than 180,000 naturalization applications were vetted without proper FBI fingerprint analyses including thousands of aliens with violent records or criminal histories that otherwise would have disqualified them.

The report said a centralized fingerprint-clearance center that opened in June 1996 was "poorly planned, poorly timed and insufficiently staffed."

The report also said INS gave Congress inaccurate assurances on the extent of processing errors. While it did not list any deliberate intention by INS to mislead Congress, it said the "inaccuracies were often the product of insufficient care in gathering the requested information and the INS desire to project the agency's work in a most favorable light."

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