(CNSNews.com) - On Sept. 8, the Homeland Security Department's inspector-general reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services mistakenly granted citizenship to at least 858 individuals who were under deportation or removal orders.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress the actual number is "somewhere around" 750. But Johnson could not say how many of them were from countries known to be havens for terrorists.
"Were any of them from special interest countries?" Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, asked Johnson.
"Not off hand," Johnson replied. "I -- I can't -- I can't give you that breakdown offhand. It is a -- I suspect it is a knowable fact, which we can provide you."
Johnson said a process to "denaturalize" those people is now under way. "And we're going to continue to do that."
"Were any of them from Iran, Syria, or Libya?" Sasse asked Johnson.
"I'd have to check. I don't know sitting here right now, sir," the secretary responded.
"How -- how would you not know that?" Sasse asked. "Why would that not be something that's urgent to you to understand the categories under the 700--"
"Oh, yes. It's a knowable fact," Johnson repeated. "I can get you the information. Just sitting here right now, I don't have the list in front of me. You know, I don't want to be wrong."
"Do you think any of them were terrorists?" Sasse asked.
"I have no basis to believe that any of them were terrorists or suspect terrorists," Johnson said. "We're going through the process now of investigating the cases. This is a legacy matter that goes back to the 1990s. And we've been denaturalizing people as we go through this process."
According to the I.G. report, the people in question were ordered deported or removed under another identity. During the naturalization process, aliens are required to reveal any other identities they have used and whether they have been in deportation proceedings. USCIS then checks applicants’ fingerprint records, but for these 750 people, their fingerprint records were left out of the DHS and FBI digital fingerprint repositories, neither of which contains all old fingerprint records.
Sasse asked Johnson, "Is there any more important defense than knowing if any of those 750 were terrorists or likely terrorists?"
"I agree with you," Johnson replied. "I agree with your question, sir. And that's why we are going through this process right now to investigate each one of these cases using the resources we have."
Sasse followed up: "But in the 11 days, or whatever it's been since the I.G. made your department aware of the problem, you didn't think to ask if any were from Libya or Syria?"
"I -- Senator, just sitting here right now, I cannot give you the answer to that question. It is an important question. Just sitting here right now, I cannot give you the answer to the question. And I don't want to be wrong."
Sasse then asked FBI Director James Comey if he knows anything about two of the 750 individuals being referred to the FBI for possible links to terrorism.
"I don't," Comey said.
"The I.G. says these people have been referred to the FBI," Sasse told Comey. The senator asked Comey to help him explain to Nebraskans why the FBI and DHS are not talking to each other.
"Your question's with me personally," Comey said. "I will find out after this hearing. I am highly confident people in our counter-terrorism division have been talking to DHS to find out what's there and to look at it. It just hasn't been briefed to the director yet."