Nation needs comprehensive ID system for exiting U.S.
Domestic security officials have given up on plans to develop a facial or fingerprint recognition system to determine who is leaving the United States.
THE 9/11 Commission concluded more than two years ago that a biometric entry-exit system of identifying possible terrorists at U.S. borders would be "a major and expensive challenge" but one that "is an essential investment in our national security." Federal security officials have now abandoned the exit monitoring part of the system at land borders, calling it prohibitively expensive -- a decision of twisted priorities.
Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had remained in the United States after their visas had expired. Monitoring of exits would allow the government to identify those who have neglected to leave the country on time. Failure to do so would invite terrorists to enter the country from Canada or Mexico.
The system, known as U.S. VISIT, for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, uses digital scans of fingerprints and digital photographs to identify visitors. It has cost $1.7 billion so far. A report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimates that a biometric system to identify visitors upon their exit from the country would take five to 10 years and cost $3 billion.
The GAO report found that implementing the biometric exit system at land borders "would require new infrastructure and would produce major traffic congestion because travelers would have to stop their vehicles upon exit to be processed -- an option officials consider unacceptable."
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary of homeland security for policy, told the New York Times that a land border exit system would cost "tens of billions of dollars." By comparison, the war in Iraq has cost nearly $400 billion and continues to cost $8 billion a month, becoming a major distraction from the war against terrorism.
A biometric system aimed at identifying terrorism suspects from abroad was activated at Honolulu Airport and other international airports nearly three years ago. The majority of foreign visitors to Hawaii are from countries included in the visa-waiver program, including Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
On the mainland, most foreign visitors enter the country from Mexico and Canada. Of more than 64 million travelers screened upon arrival, more than 1,300 criminals and immigration violators have been prevented from entering the country. A third of the illegal immigrants in the United States are believed to have overstayed their visas, according to a congressional report.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, said his department's "priorities have been tailored to the high risk. The highest priority is to keep terrorists out of the country. If we keep them out in the first place, we don't have to worry about them staying over."
That policy fails to comply with a congressional mandate. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the nation needs "a comprehensive border security system that ensures we know who is entering and exiting this country and one that cannot be defeated by impostors, criminals and terrorists."