Saturday, December 16, 2006

Feinstein Criticizes DHS on Foreigner Exit Program
Feinstein Criticizes DHS on Foreigner Exit Program
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer

Supporters of the troubled US-VISIT program warned yesterday that the decision to suspend a crucial part of the national security program launched after the 2001 attacks will leave the nation vulnerable to terrorism.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the government will be left with no way of knowing whether all visitors leave the country after the administration decided to drop a plan to track departures at land borders because of technical and cost problems.

Feinstein called the decision a "very serious failure" on top of multiple delays since the system was proposed in 1996.

US-VISIT is designed to detect criminals, suspected terrorists and visitors whose visas have expired by recording travelers' fingerprints and digital photographs when they enter and exit the United States. Having spent $1.7 billion since 2003, Department of Homeland Security officials say they have successfully recorded 61 million people entering the country through 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 of 170 land ports.

But they cannot build an exit tracking system without spending "tens of billions" of dollars more and an additional five to 10 years developing the technology.

"This program is central to protecting our national security," said Feinstein, incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's homeland security panel. "Billions of dollars and countless hours have been invested, and if DHS is going to throw this all away, the American people deserve to know why."

Others expressed relief that the department was acknowledging what critics have insisted for years: that billions of dollars might be wasted on contracts that could not deliver results. Developing an exit system is difficult because of the volume of cross-border traffic, technological demands and practical limits.

Such an entry-exit system was recommended by the panel that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but several studies have challenged its feasibility.

"Always make sure you state it clearly when the emperor has no clothes, to me is the moral of the story," said Kathleen Walker, incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, citing repeated studies and government testimony about US-VISIT's flaws.

DHS's retreat came after Congress's audit arm, the Government Accountability Office, reported Thursday that US-VISIT officials had concluded that the exit program could not now be launched at land crossings without major traffic delays or enormous cost to expand facilities, roads and communication links.

In an interview, US-VISIT Director Robert Mocny said the agency is completing a January spending report to Congress that will lay out plans to expand the exit system at airports and seaports but will leave out land ports.

Land ports record 309 million crossings a year, compared with 87 million at airports. But U.S. officials say airports pose a greater security risk because most land crossers are repeat travelers, or Mexican, Canadian and U.S. citizens who are for now exempt from US-VISIT.

In comments to reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that the department was sidetracking the land exit system.

"If we required all the people leaving the country by land going into Canada to stop to give a biometric print," Chertoff said, "you would see lines that are 10 or 15 miles long, stretching from the border deeply into New York or into Detroit."

Chertoff cited progress in tracking and screening unwanted people before they enter the United States. US-VISIT has captured more than 1,100 criminals who were using false documents, officials have said. Other programs are underway to integrate homeland security and FBI fingerprint databases, to automatically generate risk assessments on travelers and to improve monitoring of some immigration violators.

"The highest priority is to keep terrorists out of the country. Letting them come in the country and then worrying whether they haven't left in 90 days seems, to me, an inferior concern to keeping them out in the first place," Chertoff said.

US-VISIT has also spent $71 million testing the use of radio-frequency identification technology -- involving tiny microchips with a unique code embedded in a tag on visitors' departure forms -- as an alternative to a fingerprint or facial-scan system. But a January 2006 test correctly identified only 16 percent of 166 vehicles with such tags. Among the drawbacks is that the tags cannot be physically tied to an individual.