WASHINGTON – The United States remains vulnerable to infiltration by known criminals and terrorists because of chronic delays in making millions of FBI fingerprints available to the Border Patrol (search), Justice Department investigators reported Tuesday.
It probably will take at least four more years for the FBI and Border Patrol systems to be combined in a way that would allow for a quick, automated check of fingerprints for the roughly 1 million illegal immigrants who are caught each year, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found.
That means thousands who could be prosecuted for crimes or detained as security risks will be simply returned to their home countries, free to try to re-enter the United States, the report found.
"We believe this continues the significant risk that aliens who should be detained ... instead will be released because Border Patrol agents will not learn of their significant criminal or deportation history," Fine said in the report.
The report is only the latest to find fault with U.S. efforts to secure airports, seaports and border crossings in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It was released the same day President Bush marked the first anniversary of creation of the Homeland Security Department by insisting progress is being made.
"America welcomes tourists and students and business people, legitimate cargo," Bush told agency workers. "Yet, we're working hard, you're working hard, to make sure our border is closed to terrorists and criminals and weapons and illegal drugs."
Still, there remain many holes in the U.S. border security net. The FBI is at least a year away from combining government terrorist watch lists into a single database, serious questions remain about security of airline cargo, and U.S. port officials say they need far more money for security.
Democrats hope to tie these security question marks to Bush as he seeks re-election. Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a backer of Sen. John Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Bush has failed on homeland security.
"I would say we are probably on an orange alert now to Bush's failure to be truthful about what condition we're in in terms of travel, in terms of ports, in terms of first responders," Cleland told reporters in a conference call.
The FBI's fingerprint database (search) contains some 43 million 10-finger sets of known criminals' prints. Ten-finger sets are considered superior because police often find only a single print at a crime scene.
Although Border Patrol agents can check detained people against the FBI's database now, the process is slow, and the agents must select out those to be checked.
The Border Patrol's separate fingerprint system contains about 6 million two-finger sets of prints and is focused on catching those who repeatedly cross borders illegally. A second Border Patrol database contains an unspecified number of 10-finger print sets of deported and criminal aliens.
Even with these limitations, from January 2002 to April 2003 the Border Patrol caught 4,820 people who were wanted for criminal offenses and an additional 3,440 from countries thought to pose security risks to the United States, the Justice Department report says.
The problems with the current system were underscored by the case of Victor Manual Batres, who was stopped by Border Patrol agents twice in January 2002 but was returned twice to Mexico without having his fingerprints checked against the FBI files. Had the agents done so, they would have discovered he had a long criminal history and could have turned him over to state or federal prosecutors.
Instead, Batres made it across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally a third time in 2002 and rode freight trains to Klamath Falls, Ore., where he raped two Roman Catholic nuns and killed one of them, 53-year-old Sister Helen Lynn Chaska. Batres is now serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder and rape.
One reason for the continued delay in integration, the report says, is that the new Homeland Security Department has been focusing on creating the new US VISIT (search) program to photograph and fingerprint some foreigners at 115 U.S. airports and a dozen seaports.
Another factor is money. The report says that Congress approved only $5.1 million this year for the fingerprint integration project, $4 million less than the Justice Department requested.