WASHINGTON – The race to tighten the nation’s borders began just after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Authorities learned hijackers lived illegally in the country, renting apartments, taking flying lessons and moving around freely.
Congress demanded changes in border controls and tight deadlines for building a computer network that would screen foreign visitors as they seek to enter or leave the country by scanning their fingerprints and matching them against databases of suspected terrorists.
Pressing to meet that goal, the Homeland Security Department last year awarded one of the most ambitious technology contracts in the war on terror – a 10-year deal estimated at up to $10 billion – to the global consulting firm Accenture. In return, the company and its subcontractors promised to create a “virtual border” that would electronically screen millions of foreign travelers.
Documents and interviews with people familiar with the program, called US-VISIT, show that government officials are betting on speculative technology while neglecting basic procedures to ensure that taxpayers get full value from government contractors.
Although the government has spent or budgeted about $1 billion for US-VISIT, the system is being built on top of computer databases government scientists say are out of date and ineffective. Among them is a fingerprint system that does not use the government’s state-of-the-art biometric standard. As a consequence, millions of dollars are budgeted for upgrades, documents show.
Today, only a small fraction of foreign visitors – fewer than 1 percent – is fully screened by the existing system.
US-VISIT director James Williams defended the program’s strategy, saying officials plan to phase in new technology over the next decade while taking steps to maintain security with current technology.
Eventually, all foreign visitors will be required to electronically register their fingerprints and photos at U.S. embassies and consulates along with other personal details.
One of the programs targeted for criticism was a computer network known as IDENT, which requires travelers to submit prints of both index fingers at U.S. consulates and embassies overseas.
IDENT collects two index fingerprints from those visitors at the U.S. border and matches them against a database.
Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., who has questioned IDENT’s effectiveness, said Homeland Security officials should have listened to experts rather than trying to upgrade the old fingerprint technology.
“They wanted to show they were getting something done,” Dicks said. “The problem is, they made a mistake.”