- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bush administration is moving too sluggishly to make more FBI fingerprints available to immigration-control officers, a failure that could allow terrorists to slip into the country, Democratic and Republican senators said yesterday.

It will be years before immigration officials can compare the FBI’s 43 million fingerprints with those of all foreigners with visas who arrive in the United States, said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, during a hearing of a subcommittee that deals with homeland security. Since the beginning of the year, foreign visitors arriving with visas at U.S. airports and seaports have had their travel documents scanned, fingerprints and photos taken, and identification checked against terrorist watch lists as part of the new US-VISIT program.

Mr. Gregg told Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson that he doesn’t want terrorists to get into the country through that program if their fingerprints already are in the FBI’s database.

“Why did we spend all this money on a database if you folks aren’t going to take advantage of it?” Mr. Gregg asked.

Homeland Security is spending $328 million on US-VISIT this year. The Bush administration has proposed spending $340 million next year.

Mr. Hutchinson said after the hearing that immigration officers are able to compare foreign visitors’ fingerprints instantly against a slice of the FBI database that includes information about non-U.S. citizens wanted for serious crimes.

At the end of February, the 1.5 million foreign nationals processed through US-VISIT generated 125 watch-list alerts and resulted in 51 criminals apprehended, Mr. Hutchinson said.

The FBI’s database contains 10-finger sets of known criminals’ prints. Police consider 10-finger sets superior because they often find only a single print at a crime scene.

The US-VISIT program takes only prints of both index fingers because collecting all 10 prints would create too much congestion at airports, Mr. Hutchinson said. But if immigration officials have suspicions about a visitor, they can take the 10 prints and submit them to the FBI, he said.

Mr. Gregg said that takes too long. He said the FBI, the secretary of state and the head of Homeland Security should have agreed on a plan to develop a system that is fully compatible with the FBI’s.

“I’m really discouraged by this,” Mr. Gregg said.

Mr. Hutchinson said the Homeland Security Department was under Congress’ orders to get a system up and running at airports and seaports by the beginning of the year. Taking two fingerprints — which wasn’t ordered by Congress — was an inexpensive way to add a biometric element to identifying foreign visitors, he said.

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