WAR ON TERRORISM Official criticizes tracking system
Its immigration databases aren't fully compatible, the congressman said.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
WASHINGTON -- A new government computer program that tries to identify terrorists and criminals from among millions of foreign visitors was built from antiquated components that cannot easily exchange information, limiting its effectiveness in the war on terrorism, a senior Democratic lawmaker charged Monday.
"You are going down a dead-end road here, and sooner or later, it is going to be apparent," said Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.
At issue is US-VISIT, a program launched in January by the Department of Homeland Security and hailed at the time as the most significant immigration-enforcement advancement in decades. The name stands for United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. Now deployed at airports and seaports, it will be phased in at major land border crossings starting late this year.
The system uses two digital fingerprints and a photo to verify the identity of arriving travelers as it conducts an instantaneous background check. The idea is to prevent a terrorist from slipping into the United States by simply changing the name on his or her passport. Eventually, US-VISIT also will be used to help ensure that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.
Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, defended US-VISIT. "It is being developed as a connected system," he said. "It is certainly going to be an integrated system."
The government has spent more than $700 million on US-VISIT, Turner said. The total cost of the contract over the next decade could exceed $10 billion.
Not fully compatible
But Turner said a probe by his staff showed that the technology was grafted onto old immigration databases not fully compatible with either the FBI's massive fingerprint library or the State Department's database of people seeking to travel to the United States.
For example, the FBI collects 10 fingerprints; US-VISIT uses only two. Comparing data from a two-fingerprint system and a 10-fingerprint system turns out to be a complex technological operation, requiring special processes and software, according to interviews and documents.
Once US-VISIT is expanded to all foreign visitors -- as Congress intends -- the additional computer workload could make the program too time-consuming and cumbersome to operate.
"Three years since the Sept. 11 attacks and [after] the expenditure of approximately $700 million, we ... have begun to build an entry-exit system that is incapable of performing crucial counterterrorism functions, cannot share information between key agencies, and, according to the 9/11 commission, will soon have to be replaced," Turner wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that was released Monday.
Turner said the Bush administration originally had endorsed the goal of a fully compatible, or "interoperable," system, and he asked Ridge to explain why that objective had not been met and what it would cost to do so.
Hutchinson acknowledged that improvements would be needed.
Philip D. Zelikow, staff director of the Sept. 11 commission, said the problem is that US-VISIT "works off legacy databases," prior incarnations of information systems that were developed when agencies hoarded information and were not encouraged to share, for the sake of national security.