Fingerprint Database Slowed by Agency Squabbles

Disagreements among government agencies are hampering efforts to combine U.S. immigration and law enforcement fingerprint information, making it more difficult to prevent known terrorists and criminals from entering the country, according to a Justice Department (search) review released Wednesday.

Despite some progress, the Justice, State and Homeland Security (search) departments continue to clash over such fundamental questions as whether two or 10 fingers should be printed at U.S. borders and which law enforcement agencies should have access to the information.

The review by Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general, also found that watch lists used to check visitors at the borders contain only a portion of the 47 million records in FBI fingerprint files — the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (search), or IAFIS — and that the lists are prone to error.

"The majority of visitors to the United States are still not checked against the FBI's IAFIS Criminal Master File, which is the most complete and current law enforcement database," Fine said in the report.

This lack of immediate access, Fine added, "creates a risk that a terrorist could enter the country undetected."

An internal Justice Department study found in August that 73 percent of criminal foreigners encountered at Border Patrol stations and other port of entry could be detected through only the FBI database, not the smaller one relied upon by the Homeland Security Department — known as the Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT.

Fine said key decisions must be made quickly by the agencies involved, including which people should be subjected to fingerprinting, what standards and databases should be used and who will have access to the information. On average, about 118,000 daily U.S. visitors will be subjected to the screening.

In a written response, Homeland Security Undersecretary for Transportation and Border Security Asa Hutchinson agreed that more refinements are needed but disagreed with several of Fine's 11 recommendations.

Paul Corts, the Justice Department's top administrative official, said he hoped the report would help resolve the disagreements, particularly involving the standards to be used for fingerprinting.

"Each one has been a forceful advocate for its respective position," Corts said in a letter to Fine.