WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is moving too sluggishly to make FBI (search) fingerprints available to immigration control officers, a failure that could allow terrorists to slip into the country, Democratic and Republican senators said Tuesday.
It will be years before immigration officials can compare the FBI's 43 million fingerprints with those of all foreigners with visas who arrive in the United States, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said at a hearing of a subcommittee that deals with homeland security.
At the beginning of the year, foreign visitors arriving with visas at U.S. airports and seaports had their travel documents scanned, their fingerprints and photos taken and their identification checked against terrorist watch lists under the new US-VISIT (search) program.
Gregg told Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson (search) that he doesn't want terrorists to get into the country through that program if their fingerprints already are in the FBI's database.
"Why did we spend all this money on a database if you folks aren't going to take advantage of it?" Gregg said. "We spent so much money getting this stupid database up."
Homeland Security is spending $328 million on US-VISIT this year. The Bush administration proposed spending $340 million next year.
After the hearing, Hutchinson said immigration officers are able to instantly compare foreign visitors' fingerprints against a slice of the FBI database that includes non-U.S. citizens wanted for serious crimes.
The US-VISIT database has a different purpose than the FBI's, he said. US-VISIT simply verifies the visitors identities' by matching their fingerprints and photographs against those submitted when they obtained their visas. The FBI database checks fingerprints against those of known criminals.
At the end of February, the 1.5 million foreign nationals screened through US-VISIT generated 125 watch list alerts and resulted in 51 criminals apprehended, Hutchinson said.
The FBI database has 10-finger sets of known criminals' prints. Police consider 10-finger sets superior because they often find only a single print at a crime scene.
The US-VISIT program only takes prints of two index fingers because collecting all 10 would create too much congestion at airports, Hutchinson said. But if immigration officials have suspicions about a visitor, they can take the 10 prints and submit them to the FBI, he said.
Gregg said that takes too long. He said the FBI, the secretary of state and the head of homeland security should have agreed on a plan to develop a system that's fully compatible with the FBI's.
"I'm really discouraged by this," Gregg said.
Hutchinson said Homeland Security was under Congress' orders to quickly get a system up and running at airports and seaports by the beginning of this year. Taking two fingerprints - which wasn't ordered by Congress - was an inexpensive way to add a biometric element to identifying foreign visitors, he said.
The departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security already agreed on using two index fingers for the initial phase of the program, Hutchinson said.
"Now it's a matter of reaching additional agreement as to where we go from here," he said.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chastised Homeland Security for failing to integrate the FBI's fingerprint database with the Border Patrol's, noting that "full integration of the two systems remains years away."
The Justice Department reported last week that it will take at least four years for the FBI and Border Patrol systems to be combined to allow for a quick, automated check of fingerprints for the roughly 1 million illegal immigrants caught each year.
Border Patrol agents can check detained people against the FBI's database now, but the process is slow, and the agents must select those to be checked.
Fingerprints obtained by the US-VISIT program and by the Border Patrol are kept in sibling databases that use the same technology. When foreign nationals go through secondary inspections, their fingerprints are automatically sent to the Border Patrol's database and checked against the FBI's.
Hutchinson, after the hearing, said the inspector general's report didn't acknowledge that Homeland Security decided to accelerate the integration of the two databases.
He said 20 Border Patrol stations already have their databases linked to the FBI's. When another 100 are connected at year's end, 95 percent of the Border Patrol will have access to the FBI fingerprints, he said.
"We're going to get it done this year," Hutchinson said.