Congressman faults visitor-ID program

System can't easily share information, fails needs of anti-terrorism, he says

August 17, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,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 said yesterday.

"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.

But Turner said an investigation by his staff showed that the technology was grafted onto old immigration databases not fully compatible with either the FBI's vast fingerprint library or the State Department's database of people seeking to travel to the United States.

"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 yesterday.

Turner said the Bush administration originally endorsed having a fully compatible, or "interoperable," system, and he asked Ridge to explain why that goal had not been met and what it would cost to do so.

The congressional Government Accountability Office has classified US-VISIT as a "high-risk" program, meaning it could encounter significant cost overruns, technical problems and delays.

Philip D. Zelikow, staff director of the Sept. 11 commission, said he believed the Bush administration was aware of US-VISIT's shortcomings and would be willing to address them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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