Added security at U.S. airports

BWI one of 115 locations to fingerprint travelers

Start of US-VISIT called success

Citizens of 28 countries exempt from new rules

January 06, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Foreign travelers to the United States were fingerprinted and photographed yesterday upon arrival at 115 airports, including Baltimore-Washington International, as the government launched a new program designed to foil terrorists and keep closer tabs on the comings and goings of those with foreign visas.

Authorities called the nationwide rollout of US-VISIT a success and said the program adds 20 seconds to the time it takes to pass through U.S. Customs. It is a small price, they said, for enhanced security in the air and on the ground.

In a news conference at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge described the move as "part of a comprehensive program to make sure our borders remain open to travelers but closed to terrorists."

Ridge added, "It's easy for travelers to use but hard for terrorists to avoid."

Travelers at BWI faced an additional layer of security yesterday. The airport became the first in the country to fingerprint foreign visitors not just on arrival, but also before they leave the United States - a practice that will spread to all airports by the end of the year.

Fingerprints and photographs won't be taken of visitors from the 28 countries that are part of the visa-waiver program, including Japan and most of Europe, officials said. Citizens of those nations do not need visas to enter the United States, just as American citizens do not need visas to travel to those countries.

"It's a matter of reciprocity and prior information that we're not likely to have a problem with most of those people," said Steve Knox, regional director of field operations for the office of Customs and Border Protection.

The customs office is running the new program.

Officials expect to fingerprint and photograph about 24 million people in the program's first year.

Authorities say it will help them identify people on the terrorist watch list before they enter the country or board planes. Furthermore, the program will make it easier to flag someone trying to enter the country on another person's visa.

And, in the event of a terrorist attack, information gathered through the program could help identify the culprits. Fingerprints or photographs from an attack scene could be compared against those collected at airports.

Foreign travelers arriving yesterday at BWI applauded the program as an important tool in fighting terrorism. Those interviewed said they didn't mind being fingerprinted or photographed.

"I don't plan on doing anything wrong, so I'm all good," said Matt Loughnane, 25, who was arriving from Shannon, Ireland, where he and his girlfriend, Wendy Leoni of Annapolis, were visiting his parents. "I respect the emphasis on security. I don't take this personally."

Though Irish citizens on vacation in the United States are not subject to US-VISIT, Loughnane said he was fingerprinted and photographed by U.S. immigration officials before he left Ireland, apparently because he has a visa to work in the United States. The process added no more than two minutes to his check-in time, he said.

But critics say the new program has too many holes to be effective, and they question how the government will use the information it collects. The American Civil Liberties Union said the program will exacerbate discriminatory tracking of Arabs and Muslims.

"You're collecting fingerprints and other very personal information about 24 million people who come into the country every year, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that they could use that to monitor individuals and groups who oppose government policy," said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU.

US-VISIT (for United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) had a budget of $380 million last fiscal year and $330 million for this year - costs that critics say might be better spent elsewhere.

"There's a real question about how effective this is as a use of our homeland security resources," Edgar said. "The problems on 9/11 were largely a result of faulty intelligence analysis. ... [The terrorists] traveled under their own names with their own passports and visas, and they did that because we didn't know who they were. And that would not be changed in the least by this program."

Under US-VISIT, digital photographs and inkless finger-scans will be taken of foreign travelers entering the United States on a visa. The fingerprints will be checked immediately against the national digital database for criminal backgrounds and terrorist links. Anyone on the U.S. terrorist watch list will be detained by authorities.

The photographs, meanwhile, will be used to help create a database for law enforcement. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

"US-VISIT is a tool, in addition to all the other systems we have in place at Customs and Border Protection, to protect the American public," said Knox, of the customs office.

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