Links in the crime-fighting chain (Part I)

While the FBI celebrates the delivery of its National Crime Information Center 2000 system to help identify criminals nationwide, the failure of a system at the Immigration and Naturalization Service to identify a suspected murderer illustrates the shortcomings of this technology.

The Justice Department this month began investigating the procedures used by U.S. Border Patrol officials to run a computerized fingerprint identification system when they released suspected serial killer Angel Maturino Resendez at a time he was wanted by the FBI.

Mexican drifter Maturino Resendez, also known as Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, is a suspect in nine slayings in the United States, including four committed after his release last month by the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. He surrendered to authorities July 13 following a nationwide manhunt.

The computer systems used by the Border Patrol and the FBI became a factor in the case when Border Patrol officials caught Maturino Resendez trying to enter the United States illegally June 2 but allowed him to return to Mexico voluntarily after finding nothing unusual in the Ident system used to verify aliens' identities.

The spokesman acknowledged that INS "had some contact" with Maturino Resendez since Ident was in place but viewed him simply as one of many Mexican citizens attempting to cross the border. "All we knew at the time was that he was a recidivist, and that's a very frequent factor down there on the southwest border," he said.

The Ident system, which is used at 408 INS sites along U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, has a database containing records on aliens who have been deported for drug smuggling or more serious crimes. The spokesman said it remains unclear why there was nothing about Maturino Resendez—or why Border Patrol officials did not find the information on him—in that database.

Ident, developed by Raytheon Co. for about $65 million, uses a biometric finger-print reader and digital photography to verify aliens' identities. It has been in place since 1997 and does not store any records gathered before then, a spokesman for INS said. Some of the crimes Maturino Resendez is suspected of committing occurred before 1997, and his use of aliases further complicated the case, officials said.

Ident has a recidivist database containing records on 1.8 million people who have been apprehended by INS since 1997 trying to enter the United States illegally. But to increase the capacity of the computer, the database archives records of people who have not had an encounter with the INS within the previous 15 months, and the archived records are not searched as part of the standard Ident process.

Paul Wyman, director of secure identification systems for Raytheon, declined to comment, citing company policy.

In a July 14 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Claims Subcommittee, said thousands of criminal aliens are released annually by Border Patrol agents who do not have access to FBI databases because their computer systems are incompatible.

Compatibility between INS and FBI systems has been an issue for several years, a DOJ spokeswoman said. But the bottom line is the two systems were created for different purposes and use different processes, she said. The FBI system, which relies on data entry, would not be practical for the Border Patrol, which constantly apprehends people who do not have any identification.

Ident is a "much more limited system used to track non-U.S. citizens," and it has to work extremely quickly because of the number of people apprehended by the Border Patrol, the spokeswoman said.

The INS spokesman confirmed that the two systems are not linked. He said that while Ident stores two fingerprints and a photo of each alien it tracks, the FBI system stores 10 fingerprints.

He added that Ident, the first computer system INS has used to track illegal aliens, has brought the Border Patrol out of the technological Dark Ages and has worked well. But he said getting used to it has been like "drinking from a fire hydrant," and there have been challenges in fully implementing it.

"Changing people's way of conducting business at the same time you're migrating large chunks of technology into the workplace is an astonishing undertaking for any kind of organization," the INS spokesman said.

***

AT A GLANCE

Shortcomings in INS' Ident

* Is not compatible with FBI databases.* Does not store records of events before 1997.* Has difficulty identifying individuals who use aliases.* Usually searches only records of those who have dealt with the INS within the previous 15 months.* Staff is not acclimated to the system.

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