A total breakdown in cooperation between federal agencies appears to have complicated the hunt for a suspected accomplice in December’s San Bernardino terrorist attacks.
Accounts of the turf war between the agencies were unveiled Tuesday at a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing examining the security of U.S. visa programs and the implications on national security.
The hearing was led by committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin.
Committee members learned that FBI agents alerted Homeland Security Investigations agents that Enrique Marquez, the man accused of supplying the assault rifles that Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, used in carrying out the Dec. 2 attacks on a San Bernardino social service center office Christmas party.
Marquez was scheduled for an immigration hearing at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services‘ office the day after his friend, Farook, and Malik murdered 14 people and seriously injured 22 others.
When a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement team arrived at the office to detain Marquez, the Immigration Services’ agency denied ICE agents entry into the building and later refused to provide relevant immigration documents, according to a memo.
“How can you explain that they would not let Homeland Security agents in the building when they are saying, ‘Listen, you could have a potential terrorist here involved in what just happened yesterday in the slaughter of 14 Americans?’” a stunned-sounding Johnson asked León Rodríguez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. “And they don’t even allow them in the office? How could that have possibly happened?”
Rodriguez acknowledged there was a communication breakdown, while defending his department.
“Unfortunately it all happened so quickly that it was incorrectly perceived that our folks were trying to in some way obstruct what ICE was trying to do,” Rodriguez told Johnson. “Do we need to look at our protocols to make sure that those misunderstandings don’t occur? That is something that we may well need to do…”
Johnson read from the memo, which stated:
“At approximately 12 p.m. on Dec. 3, the FBI informed HSI and the (Joint Terrorism Task Force) that FBI field interview agents learned that Marquez and his wife, Mariya Chernykh, were scheduled for a meeting at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Bernardino for noon on Dec. 3. HSI contacted the HSI special agent requesting a team of armed agents to respond to the San Bernardino USCIS office in order to detain Marquez until an FBI interview team could be dispatched. The special agent informed the HSI team that the officer in charge of USCIS would not let HSI agents in the building … The special agent learned that Marquez and Chernykh did not show up for their meeting. The special agent requested copies of the A-File, in which the USCIS refused. The special agent was allowed to take a photo of Chernykh’s photo contained within the A-file.”
Rodriguez said USCIS’ “intent all along among our staff was to provide that information. It was just a very short process.”
Johnson shot back, “We’ve been told … that the decision not to let HSI in came from higher up.”
Rodriguez said that assessment is incorrect, “in the sense that once field leaders consulted with highers up, the instruction was in fact to facilitate the actions HSI wanted to take.” The director insisted that nobody was trying to prevent anybody from getting information on a suspected accomplice to the horrifying act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
“It sounds like they (the ICE agents) were prevented.” Johnson countered.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana came to her Obama administration colleague’s defense. While she admitted having a “similar reaction” to Immigration Services’ response to her agents, she said there was just so much “confusion and chaos going on in San Bernardino” following the terrorist attack. She said the information was eventually provided once the matter was clarified.
Rodriguez said something curious in response to Johnson’s question, comments that might just underscore critics’ concerns that the Obama administration’s lax handling of immigration is making homeland security a much more challenging prospect.
“We don’t normally have situations where law enforcement agencies are coming into a USCIS office to effect an arrest,” Rodriguez said.
Johnson could only conclude, “It’s quite puzzling.”