Records, fingerprints stockpiled at W.Va. site

Since Sept. 11, sharp rise in quick police access to FBI criminal data

September 15, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. - Here among the hills of West Virginia, a little-known complex materializes off an unmarked exit of Interstate 79, its glass facade, enormous buildings and perfect landscaping beckoning visitors to stop by.

The large visitors parking lot, though, is empty. So is the three-story, marble and flag-adorned lobby. And the guide manning the information console in the separate nearby visitors center and museum is the only person in that building.

The officials who run the facility want to keep it this way.

The complex is the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, a purposely colorless name that obscures its importance and its purpose. This 9-acre spread, replete with electronic surveillance and armed patrols on dirt bikes, houses the permanent criminal records of every American who has been convicted of a crime, as well as 46 million sets of fingerprints. It's called a biometric database. and it is the world's largest.

Each day the agency matches tens of thousands of fingerprints and runs millions of records checks to almost instantly provide electronic rap sheets and warrants to police officers across the country when they make an arrest or pull someone over. But now, as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, the complex, with its 2,700-member, mostly civilian staff, is becoming the heart of the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks - and the division is bracing for the onslaught.

Almost every new government initiative, including revamping airport security, locating thousands of foreigners who have violated immigration laws and cross-checking visa applicants and tracking al-Qaida, is rooted in fingerprint identification and records checks.

"It has been a very busy year," said Michael Kirkpatrick, assistant director in charge of the services division. "9/11 affected us across the board. All of our numbers have gone way up. We've tried to find new ways to use our infrastructure to get information out to help prevent a terrorist attack. We've always had this technology but frankly, no one was using it."

Anti-terror role

Since the attacks last year, the facility has processed 20 percent more fingerprints each day than last year, or almost 70,000 a day. Staff members have studied the fingerprints of everyone captured fighting in Afghanistan, become "real familiar" with the histories of the 19 hijackers and those detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and dispatched a team of experts last fall to take the fingerprints of thousands of people fleeing across the Afghan border into Pakistan during the war.

But mostly they have been flooded with requests from the federal government. New laws require the review of every airports' employees' records and fingerprints by the thousands, while another mandate has ordered the State Department to similarly screen every new visa applicant.

Added duties

Now the Bush administration and officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service are discussing creation of a border entry and exit system that would be based on fingerprint identification and require instant checks of millions of foreigners coming into and out of the country every day.

`Swamped' by requests

States nationwide have also been requiring an increasing number of employees and agency workers to be screened with background and fingerprint checks. West Virginia even recently required public school teachers to undergo records and fingerprint checks.

"We have been swamped," said Billy Martin, acting chief of the fingerprint division.

But despite the new dependence on the division for its fingerprint screening and criminal records, the facility has also found itself at the center of calls for government agencies to better share information.

For the CIA, FBI, State Department, INS and local law enforcement agencies to spot terrorists, they must be able to access and cross-reference their information with the records in the facility's mainframe computers.

While FBI bureaus across the country and its headquarters in Washington have been struggling with outdated computers for years, this complex has some of the fastest equipment on the market, which has kept its staff on top of the demand.

Usually the facility can determine someone's identity from his fingerprints, pull a criminal history if there is one and send the information back to the requesting officer or agency within 15 seconds.

Just three years ago, before the facility launched its new computer system, every fingerprint card had to be reviewed by hand, a process that took months. The division could check fingerprints against only those of suspects they had identified to see whether they matched. Fingerprint cards were strewn throughout the building as employees battled a backlog of more than 1 million prints.

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