Bill aims at data-sharing gap

If a foreign national commits a crime in the United States, the FBI stores a record of the incident in an electronic database. But the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service don't have access to those FBI records when deciding whether to grant re-entry visas.

That "gap in data-sharing" may have permitted one of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to return to the United States despite his criminal record, according to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)

Shays hopes to close the gap by requiring the FBI to share information in its criminal records databases with the State Department and INS. Legislation he introduced Sept. 25 to mandate data sharing sped through the House in about two weeks as part of a wide-ranging anti-terrorism bill.

The bill requires the FBI to put extracts of its criminal records in an "automated visa outlook or other appropriate database" that can be tapped by the State Department and INS.

Such a system might have stopped one of the Sept. 11 hijackers from entering the United States, Shays said. Reports from the hijacking investigation say one of the terrorists may have been allowed to enter the United States through Canada despite having a criminal record in the United States.

"Data-sharing between departments is no longer simply a matter of bureaucratic inertia, but a threat to national security," Shays said.

The idea of sharing the FBI's electronic crime records with other agencies isn't new. In a 1996 report, the FBI and the State Department agreed that State should get limited access to the FBI's National Criminal Information Center's Interstate Identification Index so it could better screen visa applications.

As recently as July, however, a House subcommittee that Shays heads learned that the criminal files weren't being shared. A House staffer said the FBI had been "very reluctant to allow sharing."

"I was astonished to learn that this precaution has not been taken," said Rep. Tony Hall (R-Ohio), who cosponsored the data-sharing legislation. The Senate also has passed an anti-terrorism bill. Before the data-sharing legislation becomes law, a conference committee must work out differences between the two bills.

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