WASHINGTON – The FBI is working to overcome obstacles that Justice Department investigators say could delay integration of fingerprint systems with the Border Patrol (search) until 2008, FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) told Congress on Wednesday.
Mueller was sharply questioned about the inability of the two agencies to resolve the chronic delays, which the Justice Department inspector general says leaves the United States vulnerable to infiltration at the border by known criminals and terrorists.
"I need to know, when are you going to do this?" asked Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., during a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI budget.
Mueller said the FBI had requested an additional $16.4 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 to accelerate the project. He added that there have been several high-level meetings since the inspector general's report came out March 2 to resolve bureaucratic issues.
"We are working to overcome that gap," Mueller said. "This is not an issue that is going unresolved."
The report by Glenn A. Fine (search), the Justice Department inspector general, concluded that there is a "significant risk" that the Border Patrol will continue to release criminals and terrorists because agents will be unable to quickly learn their arrest or deportation histories through fingerprints.
The report focused on the case of Victor Manual Batres, who was stopped twice by Border Patrol agents in January 2002 but returned twice to Mexico without having his prints checked with FBI files. Batres had a long criminal history and made it across the border a third time in 2002, eventually raping two Roman Catholic nuns, killing one, in Klamath Falls, Ore.
The crux of the problem, Mueller said, is that the FBI relies on a 10-finger system for identifying individuals in its database of some 43 million sets of fingerprints. The Border Patrol uses a two-finger system, one viewed as more practical for processing millions of people who cross U.S. borders every year.
"That's what we're trying to iron out," Mueller said.
Mueller also said that an effort to combine several U.S. government terrorist watch lists into a single database is half complete, with a goal of finishing this summer. That database, called the Terrorist Screening Center (search), is a combined effort of numerous agencies overseen by the FBI.
The center began operating Dec. 1 and has been providing some information about potential terrorists to requesting agencies. But Mueller said the challenge is to carefully check each name before it is included, because that individual could be detained if attempting to fly on a plane, cross a U.S. border or is stopped for a traffic violation by police.
"We are accomplishing that which has not been accomplished before, and that is to have a single standard," Mueller said.