(CNN) - The FBI lost track of dozens of foreign nationals it sponsored for entry into the United States to assist with investigations, the Justice Department's internal watchdog found.
The revelation stems from an audit by the DOJ Office of Inspector General into the department's use of immigration tools that allow law enforcement to sponsor non-US citizens to enter the country without requiring a traditional visa or residency.
This special category of immigration status is often used by the department to permit the entry of cooperating witnesses and confidential informants, who may be required to take part in investigative operations or trial testimony. Many of these individuals would ordinarily be unable to obtain traditional lawful immigration status due to their connections to criminal enterprises.
An agreement with the Department of Homeland Security -- the federal agency charged with conferring immigration status -- requires sponsoring law enforcement agencies assume full responsibility for tracking and monitoring the location and activities of foreign nationals they sponsor for entry.
In its review of the use of these special provisions by Justice Department component agencies, the inspector general found that the FBI was unable to account for at least 61 foreign nationals it sponsored. Furthermore, rather than proactively reporting the total number of those who disappeared, the bureau only notified DHS of 32 individuals no longer under the agency's control.
"Granting entry for critical witnesses and informants can be very important to investigations, particular in major drug trafficking and national security cases," Greg Brower, former FBI assistant director and United States Attorney, said. "However, since these individuals are often associated with crime, DOJ component agencies cannot simply lose track of them."
DHS is responsible for a person's removal when the person, who is granted immigration status for a law enforcement purpose, absconds.
The process involves placing the individual's name into an immigration watchlist system as well as entering their identifying information into the national criminal database used by police departments and border agents across the country. However, if sponsoring agencies fail to notify DHS that they have lost control of a particular person, there is no way for DHS to properly flag the person as now residing in the country illegally.
While the inspector general noted the bureau's failure to account for the whereabouts of numerous people, the watchdog did indicate that proper vetting was generally sufficiently conducted prior to the entry of foreign nationals sponsored by the FBI, ATF, DEA, and US Marshals Service. This procedure included checking criminal databases and conducting a national security risk assessment in order to determine whether the individual posed a threat.
"Losing track of informants and witnesses is obviously a serious problem that needs to be fixed, but the report also makes clear that recipients were thoroughly vetted by investigators before being permitted into the country," said Jennifer Rodgers, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor. "Truly dangerous people would have never been allowed in using these tools."
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the FBI referred CNN to the bureau's response in the appendix section of the report. In it, the agency accepts all of the inspector general's recommendations for improvement and notes that efforts are currently underway to locate the missing foreign nationals and better work with DHS to improve tracking mechanisms.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the audit.
Although the inspector general suggests initial screening was done appropriately, the report also admonishes the Justice Department on the potential threat such individuals might pose to public safety.
"Significant risks accompany the sponsoring of foreign nationals for use in law enforcement investigations," the report notes, "because these individuals may be associated with criminal activity and motivated only by the ability to temporarily reside in the United States."
The inspector general also states, "DOJ components must be vigilant in exercising their responsibilities for overseeing sponsored foreign nationals to fulfill their obligations to DHS, to protect the public, and to achieve their objectives of furthering investigations and prosecutions."
In addition to addressing the issue of missing witnesses and informants, the report also faulted the FBI and DEA for allowing foreign national sponsorships to lapse without proper renewals.
In a sampling of the FBI's 3,059 sponsorships from fiscal years 2015-2017, investigators found several instances where a sponsoring agent missed the deadline for renewing a person's status -- sometimes by months -- meaning the sponsored foreign national was technically residing in the US illegally and subject to deportation.
Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a former Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI.
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