A program to streamline the process for granting U.S. citizenship to immigrants came under heavy White House pressure to speed up its procedures and wound up naturalizing 180,000 people without required criminal background checks, according to documents and officials familiar with the program.

As part of a push by the White House to produce at least 1 million new citizens in time for last year's elections, the Immigration and Naturalization Service also naturalized thousands of other immigrants who received criminal background checks but whose eligibility for citizenship is now being questioned because of felony arrests on their records.

The INS program is coming under renewed congressional scrutiny, including two House hearings this week, following the disclosure last Monday of a government audit that found severe problems with the citizenship process. The failings of the program, called Citizenship USA, have triggered one of the most damning indictments ever leveled at the immigration service: that it has cheapened U.S. citizenship.

Internal reports on Citizenship USA and interviews with officials on both sides of the controversy indicate that the White House -- prodded by Democratic community activists and Latino groups -- became deeply involved in trying to accelerate the program. Spearheading that effort was Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, the office charged with "reinventing government." The stated aim was to increase efficiency, but the documents also point to hopes of creating a potent new bloc of Democratic voters in what critics have called a political takeover of the citizenship drive.

At the same time, however, congressional Republicans also played politics with the program, exaggerating the extent to which "criminals" were receiving citizenship and widely disseminating new citizens' highly confidential FBI records that were obtained under a subpoena last year for a House probe.

Committed to the American tradition of assimilating immigrants, INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner made naturalization one of her top priorities after she was appointed to the post four years ago. Her goal, as she described it then, was to put the "N" back in INS.

To make it happen, Meissner launched Citizenship USA in August of 1995 primarily to reduce a backlog of 800,000 applications and cut processing times that often exceeded two years. But what started out as a program with lofty aims and bipartisan support has since become mired in intensely political mud-wrestling.

Now, with the INS facing a record number of citizenship applications for the third year in a row -- about 1.8 million are expected this year, up 50 percent from 1996 -- the backlog and waiting times are again on the rise.

It is not clear how many of the 180,000 immigrants whose criminal backgrounds were not checked had criminal records that would have disqualified them from being sworn in as U.S. citizens, but at least some felons have slipped through. Among them were an Ecuadoran wanted for murder and a Vietnamese immigrant who faced deportation for two felony convictions and a recent parole violation.

The auditors also found that another 71,000 immigrants were granted citizenship despite having criminal histories on file with the FBI. Of them, about 10,800 were charged with felonies. Such records alone do not mean these applicants were ineligible for naturalization. While murder has always disqualified an applicant no matter when it was committed, other serious crimes such as robbery or assault could make someone ineligible if they were committed within five years of the application. The INS is reexamining its files to see if any new citizens should have been disqualified and says it will revoke the citizenship of those found ineligible.

White House and INS officials involved with Citizenship USA say the problems were simply attributable to bureaucratic snarls and not driven by politics. But memos, e-mail messages and other documents amassed by the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight suggest that, at least in the White House, the elections became a factor in pushing the process to mint new citizens.

"There was tremendous pressure from the White House . . . to really speed up the program," said Rosemary Jenks, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reducing immigration levels. The program began with the legitimate aim of addressing a huge surge in citizenship applications, which stemmed largely from an amnesty for illegal aliens and, more recently, welfare law changes that cut benefits to noncitizens. Citizenship USA was "essentially hijacked by people with very questionable goals," said Jenks, who has studied the program and testified on it before Congress.

White House interest in the program appears to have been aroused as early as September 1995, when the head of a Democratic activist group in Chicago, the United Neighborhood Organization, wrote to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to alert her to an "opportunity" presented by the new INS program to reduce the naturalization backlog. "The people stuck in Chicago's naturalization bottleneck represent thousands of potential voters," wrote Daniel Solis, adding that "similar backlogs exist in politically important states" such as California and Texas.

In February last year, a Latino group in Southern California warned the White House that INS "inaction will prevent 300,000 Latinos from participating in the 1996 presidential election" and could "create the impression that the Clinton administration is anti-Latino."

Anxious to deal with the problem, the White House turned to the vice president's office, where staff members began attacking what they saw as bureaucratic red tape and needless impediments to the granting of citizenship.

"The president is sick of this and wants action," wrote Elaine Kamarck, a senior adviser to Gore, in a March 1996 e-mail to Doug Farbrother, a Gore aide assigned to help "reinvent" Citizenship USA.

Farbrother, in a subsequent e-mail to Gore and Kamarck, reported that the INS had agreed to speed up hiring adjudicators, who interview applicants and decide who should be naturalized. But he complained that the agency had rebuffed his suggestion to use "temporary service agencies" for these jobs. In a later message to Gore, he said the INS was not doing enough to "produce a million new citizens before election day." He concluded that "unless we blast INS headquarters loose from their grip on the frontline managers, we are going to have way too many people still waiting for citizenship in November."

Farbrother also drafted, on behalf of Gore, a memo to President Clinton requesting guidance on the citizenship program. In it, he noted INS warnings "that if we are too aggressive at removing the roadblocks to success, we might be publicly criticized for running a pro-Democrat voter mill and even risk having Congress stop us." The original draft listed "several controversial actions" that could be taken, including one headed, "Lower the standards for citizenship." He suggested a "more liberal" interpretation of the basic standards, which include general knowledge of English and U.S. civics and "good moral character" in addition to five years of U.S. residency. Administration officials said this was deleted from a later draft because of INS objections. Ultimately, the memo was never sent, but other documents indicated that Clinton was briefed orally.

In a memo to Gore on her "assignment from the President to look into the citizenship backlog," Kamarck said that only if the INS processed citizenship applicants seven days a week for up to 12 hours a day "can we hope to make a significant enough dent in the backlog that it will show up when it matters."

In a telephone interview, Kamarck denied that White House involvement was politically motivated, but acknowledged that Latino and other groups were pressing for faster processing so their constituents could vote. She said the White House had nothing to do with the problems that led to the naturalization of 180,000 people without FBI checks.

Gore staff member Farbrother, who described himself as a "career civil servant" on loan from the Defense Department, said his aim was to "improve customer service" to people who had paid fees but were "waiting and waiting" to become citizens.

"The reason people apply for citizenship is so they can vote," he said in defending his references to an Election-Day deadline. "It's no use giving them their right to vote after the election." That would be "like lining up for tickets to a rock concert, and we say we'll give you the tickets after the concert is over." Besides, he said, "who knows how people are going to vote?"

A former top INS official who oversaw the program, T. Alexander Aleinikoff, stressed that "there was no change in standards" for granting citizenship and that the INS rejected nearly 200,000 applicants, about the same percentage that has been denied in the past.

Yet, the memo traffic also shows that the INS was resisting the White House's more ambitious proposals, including some that appeared political.

In one such proposal last summer, the INS was asked for the names and addresses of newly naturalized citizens so that Clinton could send them personal letters of congratulations instead of the general "Dear Fellow American" letters that have been handed out at naturalization ceremonies for years. After the agency rebuffed the idea on privacy grounds and because it "might be criticized as campaign politics," the White House repeatedly insisted that the INS at least give the generic letter to "each new citizen" as a matter of "priority," INS memos said.

Politics also appeared to drive the Republicans as they began investigating Citizenship USA last year. As the elections approached, Republicans repeatedly asserted that "100,000 criminals" had been naturalized, a charge that never was substantiated.

After receiving 50,000 highly confidential FBI rap sheets on newly naturalized citizens, Republican leaders on the House oversight committee assigned inexperienced staff members, and at least one unauthorized outsider, to cull the documents rapidly for evidence of criminality. Despite FBI and INS warnings that the rap sheets by themselves could not prove someone was improperly naturalized, thousands of copies were sent with press releases to officials and news media in key states shortly before the elections.

Since the outcry over Citizenship USA, background checks have been tightened. The FBI now must respond to an INS request for a fingerprint check whether or not a criminal record is found, and the INS must wait for that response before a citizenship application can proceed.

The result has been to slow down the entire process. After reducing the backlog to 700,000 and the processing times to six months last year, the INS now has about 1 million naturalization cases pending, and waiting periods have risen to nine months or more, said David Rosenberg, director of Citizenship USA. Because of the tightened procedures, many applicants who were about to be sworn in have been told to wait, and a number of mass naturalization ceremonies have been postponed entirely.

While the INS says the problems have been corrected and that the program will continue, critics argue that irreparable damage has already been done. One Republican supporter of Citizenship USA, Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, said she sees "little chance to reinvigorate it because the mood in Congress is that it has been a fraud and a sham." CAPTION: When Doris Meissner was appointed Immigration and Naturalization Service chief four years ago, she said her goal was to put the "N" back in INS. CAPTION: APPLYING TO BE AMERICAN (This chart was not available)