updated 3/9/2005 12:29:33 AM ET 2005-03-09T05:29:33

FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress on Tuesday that people from countries with ties to al-Qaida have crossed into the United States from Mexico, using false identities.

“We are concerned, Homeland Security is concerned about special interest aliens entering the United States,” Mueller said, using a term for people from countries where al-Qaida is known to be active.

Under persistent questioning from Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, Mueller said he was aware of one route that takes people to Brazil, where they assume false identities, and then to Mexico before crossing the U.S. border.

He also said that in some instances people with Middle Eastern names have adopted Hispanic last names before trying to get into the United States.

Mueller provided no estimate of the number of people who have entered the country in this manner.

Bush administration officials have previously said al-Qaida could try to infiltrate the United States through the Mexican border.

No conclusive evidence
In recent congressional testimony, Adm. James Loy, deputy Homeland Security secretary, said al-Qaida operatives believe they can pay to get into the country through Mexico and that entering illegally is “more advantageous than legal entry.”

But Loy said there’s no conclusive evidence that al-Qaida operatives have entered the country via Mexico.

Likewise, Mueller did not acknowledge that terrorists had entered the country through Mexico, only that it’s believed people from countries where al-Qaida is active have done so.

U.S. authorities are investigating groups that may be smuggling people from countries with al-Qaida ties, he said.

On another topic, Mueller said it will take until 2008 and cost an unknown amount of money to replace a flawed computer system that was supposed to greatly improve management of terrorism and other criminal cases.

The Virtual Case File project was to have been the final piece of the FBI’s overhaul of its antiquated computer system, an instantaneous and paperless way for FBI agents and analysts to manage all types of investigations.

New computer effort
Instead, faced with mounting evidence that the system is inadequate and outdated, the FBI is undertaking a new project.

“We intend to develop and implement a state-of-the-art case management system,” Mueller said.

The new system, as yet unnamed, will be deployed in four phases, Mueller said. An estimate of the additional cost should be ready by the end of March, when planners should know what aspects of the system will have to be developed from scratch and what software can be purchased off the shelf, he said.

“Ultimately, it will be better than VCF,” Mueller said.

But skeptical lawmakers, who heard similar predictions before, were not reassured.

“Can you tell us how you guarantee there won’t be a third failure?” asked Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the subcommittee chairman, alluding to problems with the Virtual Case File and an earlier FBI computer system.

The FBI director said the new project would be better managed and put into place in distinct pieces.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mueller made improvement of the agency’s computer systems a priority. Members of Congress and the independent Sept. 11 commission said the overhaul was critical to enabling the FBI and intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” in preventing attacks.

The first two phases of the “Trilogy” project — deployment of a high-speed, secure FBI computer network and 30,000 new desktop computers — have been completed.

But the upgrade already is 2½ years behind schedule and, at nearly $600 million, more than 25 percent over its initial budget.

Mueller has said he expects the loss to taxpayers from the Virtual Case File to be $105 million.

Before the overhaul, begun in November 2000, many of the FBI’s computer systems were 30-year-old hand-me-downs from other government agencies. Few of the bureau’s 56 field offices had connections to the Internet and its networks couldn’t even transmit a digital photo.

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