TCS Daily

'We Don't Know Anything'

By Michelle Malkin - September 12, 2002 12:00 AM

This week, the Justice Department launched an ambitious new fingerprint system for foreign visitors that will supposedly check visitors' fingerprints against the federal government's various terrorist databases.

Will the new procedures save lives? If the Immigration and Naturalization Service's track record is any indication, the prospect for increased national security as a result of the new initiative is doubtful.

The INS, Customs Service, State Department, and major law enforcement offices operate dozens of lookout databases on terrorists, deportees, and criminals. Despite this vast multi-billion dollar computer network, terrorists and other undesirable foreign visitors have been able to waltz into the country.

In some cases, the right people don't have access to the computer systems. Veteran Border Patrol agent Mark P. Hall testified before Congress: "Border Patrol agents very seldom received terrorist look-out lists. In one case several years ago, I assisted the U.S. Coast Guard in the arrest of six Syrians who attempted entry illegally into Detroit. Only at that point did I learn that they were on a suspected terrorist look-out list. The Coast Guard had the list, but the Border Patrol did not."

More often, neglectful consular officers and immigration inspectors who do have access to the technology continue to allow potential threats to slip through.

Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was allowed through the front door several times despite being linked to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination and repeatedly arrested abroad for activities such as inciting violence and attacking police officers. In 1987, Rahman's name was added to the State Department's CLASS database - which includes about 4 million names and other biographical data on known or suspected terrorists, drug traffickers, and other international criminals - "seven years after it should have been," the department admitted.

The belated lookout entry should have disqualified him from obtaining any further visas. But in 1990, Rahman gained entry to the United States yet again. Months later, the State Department revoked the last visa and notified INS - but the INS allowed him to depart and enter several more times. Although Rahman's name had also been entered in the INS's National Automated Immigration Lookout System (NAILS) database (the agency's main repository for information about suspicious aliens) and one local INS office was preparing to deport him, another office awarded him permanent resident status.

In other cases, the INS neglects to enter pertinent data into its Watch List in the first place. Angel Maturino Resendiz was an illegal alien from Mexico who was apprehended by Border Patrol agents in June 1999 in New Mexico. Although Resendiz had been wanted for months on multiple charges of rape and murder and was the target of a well-publicized manhunt, INS officials had neglected to add Resendiz's name and fingerprints to its Watch List database. So when the Border Patrol checked the Watch List, it found no match. Resendiz was released.

In still other cases, the computer system that maintains the lookout list malfunctions. Earlier this year, INS inspector Stanley Mungaray, a 10-year veteran at Miami International Airport, told CBS's 60 Minutes that the INS's NAILS database broke down at least once or twice a week. Rather than suspend operations while the database went down, his supervisors encouraged him and his colleagues to keep processing travelers without checking the system. "We don't know who we're admitting and they're getting admitted. We don't know if the person is a criminal, we don't know if he's on the watch list, we don't know anything."

Billions of dollars spent on information technology. More than a dozen tracking databases and automated programs. The most advanced biometric technology in the world. All this and more belongs to the INS, and still we hear the scariest message one could think of coming from front-line immigration officials in the post-September 11 world: We don't know anything.

How much more time, how much more money, and how many more dead bodies will it take to push the agency into the 21st century?

Piles of government audits and inspections over the past decade have documented INS's inability to plan, build, monitor, and use information technology to secure the borders. The agency has access to sophisticated fingerprint machines that gather dust and dirt; "smart" visa cards, but no machines to read them; multiple tracking databases from which records have been deliberately deleted; and automated lookout systems that break down on a weekly basis. The agency has twice ordered field offices across the country to close in order to count an estimated 5 million backlogged INS applications by hand because computers were not functioning in time to meet the agency's annual audit deadline.

It should be noted that the federal government has demonstrated that when it has the will and the self-interest, it can operate massive databases effectively. The feds subject every American buying a gun from a federally-licensed dealer in the United States to instant background checks-using the $37 million National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which contains more than 38 million criminal history records, over half a million wanted persons records, and over 400,000 records of restraining and protective orders. In its first two years alone, the system processed more than 18.5 million criminal background checks on Americans.

The solution isn't necessarily pouring millions more tax dollars into new technology to fight the War on Terror. The data are only as good as the people entrusted to collect, process, and use them for the common defense.

Michelle Malkin is the author of INVASION: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (Regnery).



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