- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2007

A ranking Senate Republican wants a “detailed explanation” from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about why the department concealed problems with its ability to share information about potential terrorists.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said department administrators kept information from federal investigators that showed “problems that hinder our ability to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.” He said Homeland Security officials failed to provide accurate information to the department’s own Office of Inspector General on system flaws that gave terrorists access to immigration benefits.

His letter was in response to a Washington Times investigation that disclosed numerous confidential Homeland Security e-mails and draft documents in which administrators purposely withheld information from a federal probe.

“It will be impossible to address information-sharing problems if government officials avoid talking about them merely to avoid the tough questions,” Mr. Grassley wrote.

Officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — the agency within the Department of Homeland Security, where the investigation is being focused — would not comment on Mr. Grassley’s letter. Instead, Chris Bentley, spokesman for USCIS, referred all questions to Mr. Chertoff’s office.

USCIS former chief counsel Dea Carpenter removed references to information-sharing failures from an internal report requested by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

Her letter also was copied to former acting Director Robert Cowan and other USCIS officials, who were working on responses to questions given to them by Mr. Grassley’s office and Mr. Skinner. Mr. Skinner had begun a probe into USCIS information-sharing shortcomings last year.

Mr. Grassley asked the secretary to “ensure that USCIS provides a complete, detailed explanation to the [inspector general] and to me of which agencies” refuse to share information.

The letter noted a reference by Mrs. Carpenter in which she warned other USCIS officials that information in the original draft would open the agency to criticism.

“We better be ready to provide evidence and name names because this type of statement is the height of the post-9/11 criticisms,” Mrs. Carpenter stated in her original draft.

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

In the first draft of the March 2006 memorandum, Mrs. Carpenter said: “There is a valid concern USCIS faces impediments in receiving information pertaining to national security related [Interagency Border Inspection System] hits.”

The Interagency Border Inspection System is a database shared by all law-enforcement agencies to search for foreign terrorist suspects or criminals. The database is also used by immigration officers checking on prospective immigration applicants.

When a USCIS supervisor gets a terrorist-related hit, the information is forwarded to the USCIS fraud unit for further investigation. The fraud unit, however, relies heavily on information from the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the intelligence community to provide accurate information about a potential security threat.

Many times those agencies refuse to share ongoing investigations or information with USCIS personnel. The problem, critics charge, is that withholding information on an applicant paralyzes the system, making it almost impossible for immigration officials to deny benefits to a person suspected of having criminal or terrorist connections.

About 35 million applications get background checks each year.

Mrs. Carpenter said in her original draft that USCIS is impeded by “agencies that are unwilling or unable to share all or part of the information they have, notwithstanding ongoing suspicions.”

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