Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Top officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledged in internal e-mails that some of their employees are able to decide visa applications without being able to do full background checks, even in important national security cases.

The e-mails provided to members of Congress and obtained by The Washington Times show a robust debate among top leaders at USCIS, the agency charged with deciding who should get green cards or temporary work or study visas, over how to do national security checks while deciding millions of applications a year.

But the e-mails show turf battles within that agency and with other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security are hindering the department’s national security mission.

In one situation, the acting deputy director purportedly ordered one investigative branch not to provide information to a top-level team deciding the toughest cases because of turf conflicts with another branch.

Meanwhile, other adjudicators do not have the right level of access to databases, meaning they could miss another agency’s flagged information and could let someone into the country who should be denied entry.

The database in question is the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), the basic check that all applications get.

“The hazard is that we come up empty on the first check go-round, not that we miss details,” wrote Mallory Hurteau, the chief of the National Security Branch of the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security at the agency, in an October message.

Other officials were pleading for better access to databases.

“The lack of access is and continues to drive USCIS employees crazy. Even in FOCUS there are employees that have limited access,” wrote Terrance O’Reilly, director of field operations for USCIS, in an e-mail in August.

FOCUS cases are key national security cases that have been flagged by an adjudicator in the field and sent to headquarters to be handled by a special team.

The e-mails show that acting Deputy Director Robert Divine wanted to streamline the process by letting FOCUS only get law-enforcement information from one investigative team, but in at least one case that meant FOCUS adjudicators would not have been able to see information they thought was vital to their decision making.

A special exception had to be made in that case, according to the e-mails.

In a statement last night, USCIS said its “policy is clear that cases are not approved without proper background checks” and said that the Department of Homeland Security requires all its agencies to share information “with agency personnel who have need for the information and have appropriate clearance.”

The agency said it pushes for “broad access to databases,” but that it was “understandable” access to IBIS data, which is controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, should be limited.

“The custodians of such databases have an understandable interest in limiting access to properly investigated users to avoid misuse or compromise of the databases,” the agency said, adding that it “persists in getting the needed information through users who have access to the databases.”

A top-level USCIS official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the e-mails showed a healthy debate within the agency over how to meet national security requirements — a goal the official said the agency meets.

“I do not know of one case where we missed national security or any information really because somebody thought they had one [type of] access and didn’t have it,” the official said. “It’s theoretically possible, but I don’t know it.”

Added the official: “I can’t tell you nobody ever makes mistakes on a check, but I can tell you were are very serious about doing the checks, doing them well, and we remove the obstacles we can.”

The official said the situation has improved dramatically since September 11, including requiring an IBIS check on every application. She said the agency is so diligent about completing all checks that it faces lawsuits and court orders from applicants still awaiting a final decision.

The agency would have to handle applications for any guest-worker program Congress would pass, and those who oppose such a plan said the information shows the agency is not ready to handle that burden.

“What we have is an agency in meltdown,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican. “We have corruption and incompetence that severely impedes our ability to determine who’s coming into this country and for what purpose.”

Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, said the agency is in disarray.

“The adjudicators are being denied the ability to do criminal background checks; they’re being told not to ask questions they might not like the answers to; they are filing or throwing away criminal hits on applicants; and I understand perhaps even ignoring terrorists,” he said.

“This is a scandal of immense proportions that has got to be brought out into the open in congressional hearings and straightened out.”

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