More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has failed to create a unified U.S. fingerprint database because of agency infighting, meaning most visitors to the country still aren't fully screened for terrorist or criminal ties, the Justice Department's watchdog warned Wednesday.
The continued bureaucratic clashing - the very behavior the Bush administration pledged to end after the attacks - is causing serious delays in solving the problem. In his fourth report about the situation, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the situation "creates a risk that a terrorist could enter the country undetected."Despite some improvement, the Justice, State and Homeland Security departments are at an impasse over such basic issues as whether two or 10 fingers should be printed at U.S. borders and which law enforcement agencies should have access to immigration information.
"Progress toward the longer-term goal of making all biometric fingerprint systems fully interoperable has stalled," Fine's report concluded.
Without an integrated system, the review found that watch lists used to check certain visitors at the borders contain only a small portion of the 47 million records in FBI fingerprint files - the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS - and that these incomplete lists are prone to error.
Current Homeland Security plans call for fingerprint checking against FBI files of fewer than 1 percent of the estimated 118,000 daily U.S. visitors whose prints should be checked, or fewer than 1,180.
Yet by the end of 2005, the officials expect to check only about 800 people a day against the FBI database.
"The likelihood of missing a criminal alien or terrorist is increased" without expanded use of the FBI files, Fine said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said creation of a single system should be "Counterterrorism 101."
"What more will it take for these bureaucracies to realize that integration of these databases is not only necessary but essential to the war on terror?" said Grassley, R-Iowa.
Since the 2001 attacks, Congress has repeatedly pushed the agencies to devise a single, quick fingerprint identification system that could be used by all law enforcement agencies as well as immigration and intelligence officials.
The agencies' inability to reach common ground runs counter to the repeated pledges of cooperation that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
The agencies "have different sets of mission objectives, and each one has been a forceful advocate for its respective position," said Justice Department top administrative official Paul Corts.
One key unresolved question is how many fingers should be printed and how. The Justice Department sides with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has recommended taking 10 "flat" fingerprints along with a digital photograph.
The Homeland Security and State departments, which now take only two finger prints, disagree with NIST.
In a letter to Fine, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson cited "inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions" in the review, including estimated costs, time delays and workload increases of moving to a 10-print system.
The system "is not designed for booking criminals," Hutchinson said.