For nearly two months, the inspectors who monitor U.S. ports of entry were working with a computerized watch list that omitted about 3,500 people identified as suspected criminals, potential terrorists or otherwise ineligible to enter the U.S., authorities said Wednesday.
At least one person was allowed to enter the country at Los Angeles International Airport without vigorous inspection during the Immigration and Naturalization Service's computer system breakdown, which lasted from March 23 to May 15. Authorities said no one knows if others who might have been flagged by the computers got through during this time.
A computer upgrade left a key border checklist without the 3,500 names. The list, widely used by immigration inspectors and other agencies, is designed to alert authorities at airports and border posts to the names of people who may be troublesome, said officials familiar with the malfunction.
One person known to have slipped through without detailed inspection is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iran who was under FBI investigation for suspected links to terrorism, sources said. The suspect, who arrived at LAX this month, was allowed into the United States without being subject to systematic checks requested by the FBI, the sources said.
Immigration officials said Wednesday they had fixed the problem and were still trying to determine how many of the people who had been improperly left off the watch list may have attempted to enter the country through land borders, airports or seaports, according to Russell Bergeron, an INS spokesman.
The breakdown seems likely to intensify criticism of the beleaguered INS, which has faced widespread censure since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Though all 19 hijackers initially entered the United States with legal visas, the attacks exposed deep vulnerabilities in the nation's system of screening and admitting immigrants and visitors.
A senior agency official in Washington familiar with the matter acknowledged that the potential security breach was serious, but voiced hope that few on the list opted to travel during the computer snag. Authorities said there was no sign that sabotage occurred or that any outsiders were aware of the mishap and in a position to exploit it.
"Before it's characterized as a catastrophic failure ... we would want to look at how many individuals in that population actually decided to travel to the U.S. during that time," said the senior INS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Since Sept. 11, Congress has directed the INS and its parent agency, the Justice Department, to improve access to the alphabet soup of federal law enforcement databases that serve as a line of defense against terrorists and others deemed undesirable.
Almost 2 million names are cataloged in the INS' National Automated Immigration Outlook System, known as NAILS. Among them were 3,491 entries provided by the State Department, acting on possibly incriminating evidence developed abroad, the senior INS official said.
The State Department "tip-off" entries tend to be people who should be watched most seriously, the INS official said.
People may be placed on federal lookout lists for a range of reasons, from suspected criminal and terrorist activity to suspicious travel patterns or visa irregularities. Some may have committed no crime, while others may be fugitives.
The NAILS system feeds into a broader database called the Interagency Border Information System, which also displays lookouts generated by a range of other agencies, including the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition, IBIS lists outstanding warrants compiled by the FBI from police agencies nationwide.
Because of its breadth of information and relative efficiency, IBIS is the principal system used by immigration officials who inspect the passports and other documents of tens of millions of visitors each year.
The IBIS system is designed to give authorities an opportunity to keep out ineligible visitors, arrest criminal suspects attempting to enter or question and search people otherwise eligible for entry.
The problem that arose on this occasion, the INS official said, is that the 3,491 names on the agency lookout did not all transfer automatically into IBIS, as is supposed to happen.
The apparent reason: an INS computer maintenance effort designed to "re-synchronize" its computers with the system used by the Treasury Department, which runs IBIS. The technical adjustment--which had never been done before--somehow resulted in the 3,491 names not making it into IBIS.
"It had been on our list of systems change requests for some time," the senior INS official said of the maintenance. "It was a new routine."
The synchronization program was executed March 23, and, while some "small discrepancies" were noted at the outset, the larger problem of the missing names was apparently not noticed until the case of the naturalized Iranian terrorism suspect at LAX.