WASHINGTON -- Despite a post-Sept. 11 emphasis on sharing information, the government each year deliberately shreds millions of unsuccessful immigration applications containing personal details and photographs that some officials say could help in the war against terrorism.
Many applicants are from countries the U.S. government considers sponsors or harborers of terrorists, officials said.
Senior counterterrorism and law enforcement officials say they were unaware of the State Department's practice and believe the information should be preserved for potential use in terrorism investigations. Immigration lawyers, however, are worried about the privacy implications.
"All the people in homeland security should eventually have the capacity to sift through these," said Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee.
State Department officials say they have been using high-speed shredders in Kentucky they call "Igor One" and "Igor Two" to destroy the records of immigrants who fail to win entry to the United States after applying through a special visa lottery system.
Millions across the globe apply, but only about 50,000 are picked randomly each year. Each one-page application includes the person's name, photograph, current address and place of birth, as well as the same information and photographs for all immediate family members. Winning applicants are asked further about the dates and locations of any schools or jobs.
On Wednesday, the State Department published new rules for the next lottery, and winning visas would be awarded in October 2003. The lottery will be open to immigrants from all nations except Canada, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and the United Kingdom.
Applications from the 50,000 winners each year are retained and checked against lists of terror suspects and known criminals. The rest -- the overwhelming majority -- are destroyed under the State Department's rules for the 1990-era Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery.
Sharing with CIA
Ed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs that runs the program, said the State Department would be willing to change its rules to share all the forms with the FBI and the CIA.
"We'd be happy to mail them to the CIA if they wanted," Dickens said. "They're not of particular use to us."
Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials told about the shredding by The Associated Press said they could see an investigative use for the information.
In the most recent lottery, the government received 8.7 million applications. It awarded visas to citizens of the seven countries the United States considers state sponsors of terrorism -- Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yemen -- as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, plus 178 other countries.
Recent winners included the family of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, 41, an Egyptian who gunned down two people July 4 at Los Angeles International Airport, officials said. Hadayet had been under deportation orders in 1997 when his wife won the visa lottery, allowing the entire family to remain in the United States.
A top Bush administration counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he found the destruction of applications "very shocking." The official said the documents would be useful to investigators tracing biographical information about people living overseas who are trying to enter the United States.
A law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said data from the applications "could be another tidbit of information that could be used to identify a piece of a puzzle" in terror investigations.
This official cautioned that any information from visa applicants would be useful only when combined with leads from other sources and databases.
Immigration lawyers and other experts oppose plans to keep and distribute the applications.
Kathleen Campbell Walker of the Kemp Smith P.C. law firm in El Paso, Texas, said the government should spend money instead on improving existing databases.
"I don't see the fact that some terrorist applied for a diversity visa 15 times really does us that much good," she said. "How does that really help us much?"
Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University, said storing the information from unsuccessful applications would create "yet another ineffective database."
"A terrorist is not going to be applying for a green card through the lottery," Yale-Loehr said. "In terms of trying to find a needle in a haystack, there's no need to make that haystack that much bigger."
One law firm, Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, has been privately urging the State Department unsuccessfully to accept visa applications electronically, which would make it easier for the government to retain the records and search them, said Steptoe lawyer George Carenbauer of Charleston, W.Va.
Carenbauer said the government apparently hasn't even considered which agency -- the FBI or homeland security office, for example -- should get the material. "It's a question policy makers might want to consider," he said.