In a far-reaching inquiry, authorities are rescreening more than 58,000 Iraqi refugees living in the United States amid concerns that lapses in immigration security may have allowed former insurgents and potential terrorists to enter the country, U.S. officials said.
The investigation was given added urgency after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq and Yemen had tried to target the U.S. refugee stream, or exploit other immigration loopholes, in an attempt to infiltrate the country with operatives.
The rescreening began late last year after the FBI learned that an Iraqi man in Kentucky had participated in roadside bomb attacks in Iraq before he was granted U.S. political asylum in 2009. He and another Iraqi refugee were arrested in an FBI sting in May on charges of trying to send explosives and missiles to Iraq for use against Americans.
So far, immigration authorities have given the FBI about 300 names of Iraqi refugees for further investigation. The FBI won’t say whether any have been arrested or pose a potential threat.
The individuals may have only tenuous links to known or suspected terrorists. The names were identified when authorities rechecked phone numbers, email addresses, fingerprints, iris scans and other data in immigration files of Iraqis given asylum since the war began in 2003.
They checked the data against military, law enforcement and intelligence databases that were not available or were not utilized during the initial screening process, or were not searched using sufficient Arabic spelling and name variations.
It addition to the Iraqis, authorities have rescreened a smaller number of refugees from Yemen, Somalia and other countries where terrorist groups are active.
U.S. officials say they have tried to plug the gaps as quickly as possible.
Unlike earlier screenings, for example, immigration officials now must check an Army-run biometric database of known and suspected bomb makers and other insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan before a refugee is admitted from either country. They also have added other background and security checks.
The enhanced screening procedures have caused a logjam in regular visa admissions from Iraq, even for those who risked their lives to aid American troops and who now fear reprisals as the Obama administration winds down the U.S. military presence.
In the Kentucky case, the FBI learned in November from a confidential informant that Waad Ramadan Alwan had constructed improvised roadside bombs in Iraq before he was granted U.S. asylum in April 2009.
Alwan allegedly told the informant that he had planted bombs near the oil refinery town of Baiji in northern Iraq in summer 2005. In December, the FBI’s field office in Louisville asked for help from the FBI-run Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Quantico, Va.
The little-known center warehouses more than 70,000 defused bombs, all recovered in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, for possible use as evidence. The stockpile is so large that 300 forensics experts and other technicians are assigned to respond to requests from investigators or intelligence analysts.
In January, after checking several thousand items in the inventory, the FBI said it had found Alwan’s fingerprints on a cordless phone that had been wired to detonate an improvised bomb near Baiji in 2005.
A bomb squad had found the phone and sent it to Quantico. But it was labeled “low priority” and was not dusted for fingerprints until this year, said a U.S. law enforcement official who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
The case has exposed several immigration and intelligence security gaps.
At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing last Wednesday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) criticized the FBI for failing to check for fingerprints on all the recovered bombs.
“I don’t understand why they would be behind by five or six years,” he said. He said there was “no excuse” for the delay.
An FBI spokesman would not say how extensive the backlog is or when it might be resolved. But experts said bomb parts rarely carried usable fingerprints.
So far, the FBI has identified 430 prints at the center and added them to a biometric database that the Army has compiled from captured and detained insurgents.
But the Army’s database — which also contains photos, palm prints, iris scans and sometimes DNA samples — was kept off the Internet to prevent hacking. It thus does not connect to the immigration database, and names must be cross-checked one at a time, officials said.
The Army agreed in March to begin reconfiguring its system so it could share biometric data with the Homeland Security Department and immigration authorities. For now, immigration officials can access the Army database “through manual processes,” said Bill Phillips, policy branch chief for the Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency.
Stewart Baker, former head of policy at the Homeland Security Department, called the situation “shocking.” In an interview, he said the database should have been shared with immigration and other government agencies “at the earliest possible time.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asked Homeland Security Department and State Department officials at last week’s hearing whether they were approving too many asylum applications.
“I don’t fault you for missing the needle in the haystack,” he said. “You’ve got to make the haystack smaller.”
About 18,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted last year, but the number has fallen sharply since new screening procedures were imposed.
About 30,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum. Many worked as interpreters or held other positions with the U.S. military, aid groups or companies in Iraq and say they face reprisals because of those ties.
Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, a nonprofit group that tries to help Iraqis facing such threats, said immigration security lapses should not become “a pretense” to stop admitting Iraqi refugees.
Americans can’t “ignore the obligation we have” to protect Iraqis who are persecuted because they served alongside U.S. forces, he said.