- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

The Department of Homeland Security has met a congressional deadline to establish a new biometrics-integrated fingerprint system at the nation’s 50 busiest land ports of entry, but its effectiveness has been challenged in a Justice Department report.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who heads border and transportation security, yesterday told reporters the department’s highly touted biometrics system, known as the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program (US-VISIT) was on line and ahead of schedule.

“This is a step towards our vision of creating a 21st-century border and immigration management system,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Last week, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General questioned in a report whether US-VISIT can be fully integrated with the FBI’s 5-year-old biometrics fingerprint system, known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

IAFIS maintains the largest biometrics database in the world for fingerprints and corresponding criminal-history information.

Congress mandated after the September 11 attacks that the Homeland Security Department complete installation of the US-VISIT program by Dec. 31, 2004. The program has been described as a critical law-enforcement tool in the department’s search for terrorists, allowing immigration inspectors and border agents to quickly identify potential terrorists and other criminals through biometrics fingerprint technology.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the report that the US-VISIT system takes two fingerprints from each visitor and checks them against a Homeland Security “watch list” that contains records from its own automated fingerprint system, known as the Automated Biometrics Identification System, or IDENT, which contains records extracted from IAFIS.

“This extraction process was originally intended as an interim measure until IDENT and IAFIS could be integrated,” Mr. Fine said. “The report found that despite this interim process, risks remain because the extracted records are error-prone and the data extracted from IAFIS to IDENT represent only a small portion of the more than 47 million records in IAFIS.”

Mr. Fine noted that a recent study by the Justice Department comparing the performance of IDENT and IAFIS at identifying immigrants with criminal records at Border Patrol stations and ports of entry found that conducting checks using only the IDENT watch list failed to identify more than 70 percent of the criminal immigrants encountered by border authorities.

The inspector general’s report also noted that while the deployment of new biometrics fingerprint workstations at Border Patrol offices and ports of entry represented a “significant accomplishment,” full integration of IDENT and IAFIS had yet to be realized.

The report said the FBI’s IAFIS system transmits new fingerprint files on known or suspected terrorists to Homeland Security’s IDENT program only once a month. It also noted that federal, state and local law enforcement authorities still do not have complete access to information in the IDENT database.

Mr. Fine also said the congressional directive to fully integrate the federal government’s separate fingerprint-identification systems had not been accomplished, in part because high-level policy disagreements remained at the Justice, Homeland Security and State departments regarding integration.

He said the Justice and Homeland Security departments have yet to enter into a memorandum of understanding to guide the integration of IAFIS and IDENT because of fundamental disagreements over the attributes of an interoperable fingerprint system and even the degree to which the systems should be consolidated or made interoperable.

The disagreements ranged from the number of fingerprints that should be taken from each person by immigration and consular authorities, what records systems persons should be checked against and the extent to which law enforcement agencies should be able to directly access immigration records.