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The Nation

Border Security System's Limits Assailed

Lawmaker questions the effectiveness of program built on databases that are not fully compatible.

August 17, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

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 charged Monday.

"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 advance in immigration enforcement in decades. The name stands for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. Now deployed at airports and seaports, it will be phased in at major land border crossings late this year.

The system uses two digital fingerprints and a photo to verify the identity of an arriving traveler as it conducts an instantaneous background check.

The idea is to prevent a terrorist from slipping into the country by simply changing the name on his or her passport. Eventually, US-VISIT also will be used to ensure that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.

Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, defended US-VISIT. "It is being developed as a connected system," he said. "It is certainly going to be an integrated system."

The government has already spent more than $700 million on US-VISIT, Turner said. The total cost of the contract over the next decade could exceed $10 billion, making it one of the most expensive domestic security programs ever implemented.

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

For example, the FBI collects 10 fingerprints, and US-VISIT gathers two. Comparing data from a two-fingerprint system and a 10-fingerprint system is a complex technological operation, requiring special processes and software, according to interviews and documents.

Once US-VISIT is expanded to all foreign visitors -- as Congress intends -- the additional computer workload could make the program too time-consuming and cumbersome to operate.

"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 counter-terrorism 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, released Monday.

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

Hutchinson said an interconnected system remained the goal, but he acknowledged that improvements would be needed. He said he hoped the Sept. 11 commission's endorsement of the concept behind US-VISIT would persuade Congress to increase funding.

Some officials have suggested that the department went forward with the current version of the program because of pressure to deploy a system quickly.

Concerns about US-VISIT illustrate the kinds of issues the U.S. faces as it tries to develop a virtual border and transportation security system, using technology to monitor foreign visitors and airline passengers.

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

This summer, the Homeland Security Department ran into trouble on another technology project. It announced that privacy concerns and technical obstacles had forced the government to go back to the drawing board with a computerized profiling system for air travelers.

But Philip D. Zelikow, the Sept. 11 panel's executive director, said he believed that the Bush administration was aware of US-VISIT's shortcomings and was willing to address them.

The problem, Zelikow said, is that US-VISIT "works off legacy databases," prior incarnations of information systems that were developed when agencies hoarded information and were not encouraged to share it for the sake of national security.

"The legacy databases are not pooled with other databases," Zelikow said. "These are long-standing problems that will require a lot of effort to resolve."

Nonetheless, the commission sees US-VISIT as a constructive start because it can provide quick identity and background checks before foreigners are allowed to leave an airport.

"We thought that was the right step; it was a substantial innovation," Zelikow said. "The notion that if we can't do something perfectly we should not try to improve on it at all is not a management principle we endorse."

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