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Military seeks better use of finger, eye scans

On the front lines in Iraq, U.S. troops can scan someone's eye or finger to try to determine if he is a potential enemy or has been connected to a terror attack.
Image: A U.S. soldier akes a retina scan of a refugee
A U.S. soldier of 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry takes a retina scan of a refugee at a joint U.S.-Iraqi military security station in Sab al-Boor near Baghdad December 15, 2008. Residents who fled due to sectarian violence for the past two years from Sab al-boor are screened in the U.S.-Iraqi military station before they can return to their areas. Erik De Castro / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the front lines in Iraq, U.S. troops can scan someone's eye or finger to try to determine if he is a potential enemy or has been connected to a terror attack.

At military bases on U.S. soil, it's not that easy.

The use of biometrics — ranging from simple fingerprints to more advanced retinal and facial scans — has thrived in Iraq, where soldiers carry handheld devices that enable them to link to databases filled with hundreds of thousands of identities.

But in Colorado, military bases just 20 miles or so apart have different identification requirements and access procedures for personnel or contractors trying to get onto the property. The gaps raise security concerns and worries of another attempted massacre scheme, like the one foiled at Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2007.

"Interestingly, we are probably further forward in using biometrics outside our country in some of the combat environments than we are inside our country," Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said Tuesday. "We've got to find a way to fix that."

Speaking at a biometrics conference, Renuart said the military services and law enforcement agencies around the country all carry different ID badges, and many are embedded with different information. And in some cases those agencies, he said, also have different computer databases that don't communicate well.

The more coordinated collection and use of biometrics, however, raises privacy concerns in the United States as well as in Iraq, where there are fears the information could be used for ethnic cleansing, to discern whether someone is a Sunni or a Shiite. And the presidential order for improved information sharing is also among the directives signed by President Bush that may be reviewed anew by the Obama administration.

Using biometrics on the battlefield took hold early in the Afghanistan war, when U.S. officials wanted to allow Afghan Muslim pilgrims to travel to the holy city of Mecca for the annual hajj. Officials reached for biometrics as a way to track who was traveling to Saudi Arabia, and to make sure those were the same people allowed back.

Renuart, the military commander in charge of domestic defense, said the thousands of Defense Department installations across the country — from sprawling bases to smaller compounds — have different access requirements and their plastic-encased ID cards may not look the same or tap into similar personal data.

Guards at the gates, he said, are also confronted with an array of contractors, vendors and representatives from other federal agencies — from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security — all with identification cards that could be faked or stolen.

"ID cards give you data, but they don't necessarily give you all the right data," said Renuart. "They don't give you access into a database that will allow you very quickly to discern whether this person is here legally or not" or if they are a criminal or someone who should not be allowed onto the base.

Underscoring the possible threat, Renuart pointed to the Fort Dix case in which five Muslim immigrants were convicted of conspiracy late last month in connection with a plot to kill military personnel at the base. They were acquitted of attempted murder after prosecutors acknowledged the men were probably months away from an attack and did not necessarily have a specific plan. And they were not accused of any ties to foreign terror groups.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., called biometrics the best non-lethal defense against terrorism, and he said Tuesday that while federal agencies have information, it often can't be shared or accessed easily.

The Defense Science Board, in a 2007 report, echoed many of the same concerns about gaps in information sharing, coordination and research and development. The board, a standing committee of outside experts, including retired military officers and former government officials, found that biometrics is growing in importance and while technology is improving, there is still more to be done.

President Bush signed the presidential directive last June ordering senior leaders to develop coordinated guidelines for the timely collection, storage, use and sharing of biometric information, and giving them a year to report back.