Friday, August 24, 2007

Department of Homeland Security administrators fearing additional scrutiny — concealed from federal investigators information-sharing breakdowns that left the U.S. vulnerable to terrorists, internal DHS memos and e-mails show.

The documents obtained by The Washington Times lay out how officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) deliberated telling the Inspector General’s Office that DHS agencies failed to share data before opting to withhold their concerns.

“We better be ready to provide evidence and name names because this type of statement is the height of the post-9/11 criticisms,” former Citizenship and Immigration Services Chief Council Dea Carpenter noted in an e-mail to officials within her DHS agency last year.

The e-mail preceded the removal of references to information-sharing failures in the mammoth department from the third and final draft of a memorandum Mrs. Carpenter wrote for Inspector General Richard L. Skinner. Mr. Skinner had begun a probe into USCIS information-sharing shortcomings at the request of Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who had received numerous complaints of internal problems in the agency.

In the first draft of the March 2006 memorandum, Mrs. Carpenter said: “We also experience agencies that are unwilling or unable to share all or part of the information they have, notwithstanding ongoing suspicions. Some agencies close out investigations pertaining to suspicious activity but refuse to share the information they have. It is imperative that USCIS receive any and all information so that it can determine whether an individual is eligible for the immigration benefit being sought.”

It noted “the vulnerabilities caused by law enforcement and intelligence agencies who do not post lookouts of potential threats, or proactively share such information in another manner, so as to ensure we do not grant immigration benefits to persons who pose a threat to national security and/or public safety.”

The Inspector General”s Office never saw the information contained in Mrs. Carpenter’s original. The Washington Times obtained all three copies, which include numerous edits annotated in blue.

The documents obtained by the paper come on the heels of an inspector general”s report released two weeks ago that criticized federal agencies for failing to cooperate on terror investigations and highlight concerns that internal squabbling among DHS agencies such as USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol undermine the main mission the department was created to carry out in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

This month”s inspector-general report said ICE agents avoided cases involving terrorist activities because of disputes with the FBI.

The squabbling between ICE and FBI agents also led to information-sharing failures between ICE and USCIS. The Office of Security and Investigations — the security division of USCIS — requested membership in the national Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in 2005 but was denied entry despite a favorable response from the FBI.

Former ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary John Clark shunned the idea of USCIS involvement in an e-mail to Robert Divine, who at the time was USCIS acting director, explaining that the agency was having trouble with investigations involving the FBI. In the e-mail, Mr. Clark threatened to pull ICE from participation in any JTTF operation.

“We have experienced, in many different areas and on many different occasions, the FBI pitting the various DHS law enforcement participants against one and other within their” JTTF, Mr. Clark wrote in the e-mail obtained by the paper. “Much of the work on the JTTF falls outside the terrorism venue, and the FBI uses its excessive reliance on information classification to limit the ability of participating agencies to review the work [of] their personnel inside the JTTFs.”

In March, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez stated in written testimony to Congress that information sharing can hinge on the “personalities of the agents involved” and that those agents may not be forthcoming with national security information requested. Under pressure from Congress, Mr. Gonzalez conceded that the background-check process is failing to detect terrorists who may have entered the country.

The Washington Times disclosed last week a confidential USCIS criminal report that stated that several USCIS employees were accused of aiding Islamic radicals with identification fraud and bribery.

In the final draft of Mrs. Carpenter’s memorandum to the inspector general, she states that USCIS’ Office of Security and Investigations “does not have open cases related to allegations of espionage.”

USCIS officials said last week they could not comment on ongoing investigations.

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