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RESPONSE TO TERROR

High Tech, Low Effort at INS

Security: Critics say the agency should have improved its ID procedures long ago.

November 19, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It is hidden on the back of the new U.S. green card: a digital fingerprint, written with a laser, virtually immune to copying, readable only through a special scanning device.

Experts say the optical stripe--capable of encoding information about a person's hands, eyes, face and voice--is one of the most secure identity-card features ever invented. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has issued more than 5 million such cards to noncitizens living permanently in the U.S. since 1998, has never installed machines that read them.

"The 'smart' cards have been effectively rendered 'dumb' cards," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). In the post-Sept. 11 world, she added, "we can no longer afford to operate in this way."

As U.S. officials try to close off America's 250 ports of entry to terrorists, state-of-the-art technologies are emerging at the center of efforts to identify people with greater precision than ever before. Computer technology can help border guards match the faces of suspected terrorists against "lookout" lists, and encoded fingerprints and other biometric data--like on the new tamper-proof green cards--can help foil the vast black market in phony documents.

Yet at the INS, which regulates immigration and U.S. borders, the track record with information technology has been one of promise unfulfilled, despite an investment of more than $1 billion in such efforts over the last several years, according to official audits and a broad array of critics.

A recent Justice Department report found the INS mismanaged a $31-million program to electronically record the entries and exits of noncitizens crossing America's borders; INS officials estimate it will take four years and an additional $57 million to finish the job. The agency's effort to build an electronic database to track foreign students, inspired by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, still covers only 21 southeastern colleges. Two years ago, a serial killer slipped through the INS fingerprint system; its database of fingerprints remains unconnected to the FBI's.

"It is a monumental task the INS faces to quickly and efficiently install these necessary systems," Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, said in an interview. "It is going to be a struggle."

Just last week, the Bush administration announced plans to overhaul the INS, separating the law enforcement functions from services to immigrants. Some members of Congress want to break up the agency and cite blunders in handling data as evidence of its problems.

"It's never been more obvious than now that we need a law enforcement agency headed by a law enforcement expert to deal with border security and criminals and illegal aliens," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who would place INS enforcement and service operations under a new office in the Justice Department.

Critics point to Angel Maturino Resendez, a Mexican drifter sought two years ago in a string of murders.

Resendez, known as the "railway killer" for crisscrossing the United States on freight trains, had been in the custody of the Border Patrol--an INS agency--a month before he turned himself in to authorities in July 1999. At the time, the INS possessed a computerized fingerprint system that could easily have alerted patrol agents to hold Resendez.

INS investigators, however, had failed to note in its Automated Biometric Identification System, known as IDENT, that police were looking for him. So when Border Patrol officers caught Resendez sneaking into New Mexico on June 1, 1999, and ran his fingerprints through the system, nothing warned them to hold him. Resendez was accused of killing four more people after the Border Patrol let him go.

"We found that the training that was given to INS employees on IDENT, particularly outside the Border Patrol, was ineffective or nonexistent," Fine recently told Congress.

INS officials acknowledge missteps in their efforts to employ modern technologies. But they also say the agency has struggled with an unwieldy and rapidly expanding mission, along with occasionally mixed signals from Capitol Hill. For example, Congress earlier this year held up the proposed system to track foreign students, in response to complaints from universities about the plan to collect fees.

In addition, the INS labors under strict rules to keep travelers flowing efficiently through airports and land borders, creating a tense balance between traveler convenience and national security.

One of the last federal agencies to embrace computers, the INS in the 1990s poured hundreds of millions of dollars into an array of information technology.

"A great deal of money came in, and as an organization we weren't well prepared to handle it," said Paul Rosenberg, who directs the INS office of strategic information and technology development. "As an organization we had some successes in there, and we had some management failures in there."

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