Agencies still at odds over fingerprinting

/ Source: The Associated Press

More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has failed to create a unified U.S. fingerprint database because of agency infighting, meaning most visitors to the country still aren’t fully screened for terrorist or criminal ties, the Justice Department’s watchdog warned Wednesday.

Continued bureaucratic clashing — the very behavior the Bush administration pledged to end after the attacks — “creates a risk that a terrorist could enter the country undetected,” said Inspector General Glenn A. Fine in his fourth report about the problem.

Despite some improvement, the Justice, State and Homeland Security departments are at an impasse over such basic issues as whether two or 10 fingers should be printed at U.S. borders and which law enforcement agencies should have access to immigration information.

“Progress toward the longer-term goal of making all biometric fingerprint systems fully interoperable has stalled,” Fine’s report concluded.

Incomplete listsWithout an integrated system, the review found that watch lists used to check certain visitors at the borders contain only a small portion of the 47 million records in FBI fingerprint files — the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS — and that these incomplete lists are prone to error.

Currently only about 1 percent of an estimated 118,000 daily U.S. visitors whose fingerprints should be checked are actually run through the FBI files, “the most complete and current law enforcement database,” Fine said.

“The likelihood of missing a criminal alien or terrorist is increased” without expanded use of the FBI files, Fine said.

Since the 2001 attacks, Congress has repeatedly pushed the agencies to devise a single, quick fingerprint identification system that could be used by all law enforcement agencies as well as immigration and intelligence officials. The agencies’ inability to reach common ground runs counter to the repeated pledges of cooperation that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

Different objectivesThe agencies “have different sets of mission objectives, and each one has been a forceful advocate for its respective position,” said Justice Department top administrative official Paul Corts.

One key unresolved question is how many fingers should be printed and how. The Justice Department sides with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has recommended taking 10 “flat” fingerprints along with a digital photograph of the individual. These “flat” prints, NIST says, are almost as accurate as the “rolled” fingerprints favored by the FBI and should take only 10 to 15 seconds longer than taking just two finger prints.

The Homeland Security and State departments, which now take only two finger prints, disagree with NIST. In a letter to Fine, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson cited “inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions” in the review, including estimated costs, time delays and workload increases of moving to a 10-print system.

The system “is not designed for booking criminals,” Hutchinson said, but is intended as a “lookout” for suspect individuals.

Janice L. Jacobs, the State Department’s top visa services official, said a test program in Monterrey, Mexico, found that it took up to a minute longer to take 10 prints. “Adding one minute of processing time to 7 million visa applications annually has significant workload implications,” Jacobs wrote to Fine.

Homeland Security officials also have resisted giving the FBI and other law enforcement agencies access to its visitor records, partly to ensure the privacy of those individuals.

Profiling complaintsIn addition, the problem of inaccuracies in various watch lists has occurred repeatedly since Sept. 11, and some groups have complained loudly that they are unfairly singled out for scrutiny.

One such incident occurred earlier this week when about 40 American Muslims were held for questioning and fingerprinted as they returned to the United States via Niagara Falls, N.Y., from an Islamic conference in Toronto, Canada. Some were held for up to six hours Sunday night and early Monday.

“The image of a room full of American Muslim citizens apparently being held solely because of their faith and the fact that they attended an Islamic conference is one that should be disturbing to all Americans who value religious freedom,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Fine made a number of recommendations intended to accelerate progress on the fingerprint system, warning that further delays will increase costs.

On top of that, he warned that the current FBI fingerprint file’s capacity to handle search requests could be severely taxed — meaning more system outages and delays — if all foreign visitors envisioned are checked.