Homeland defense puzzle laid out

Bush administration policy-makers and Congress are scrambling to use information technology to improve homeland defense, but they are not developing the "federal enterprise structure" that is needed to tie together scattered systems and programs, the technology chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said.

"It's scary to see where we're leaping to," Scott Hastings told an audience of information technology and government professionals Nov. 15.

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, policy-makers have seized on technology ranging from facial recognition cameras to database sharing as ways to strengthen the nation's defenses against terrorists.

But there is little understanding of how the parts must work as a whole, he said. "There is no clearly defined federal architecture," and there are no business objectives, he said.

Among congressional staff members in particular, there exists the "perception that there can be one big database that everyone can plug into," Hastings said during an address to the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

Greater sharing of information among agencies such as INS and the FBI could improve homeland security, but issues such as security and access control must also be resolved. "We're concerned about just throwing our databases out there," he said.

INS has been a target of extensive criticism since Sept. 11 because the agency admitted the terrorists into the country and failed to keep track of them. Some of them entered with student visas but didn't go to school; others stayed even though their visas had expired, and at least one was wanted by police.

Hastings conceded that some of the criticism is deserved, but some is not. He said INS must process 550 million people a year and is subject to policies that change with shifting political winds.

He noted prominent quandaries that INS faces:

* When the agency enforces immigration laws vigorously, U.S. businesses that employ immigrants complain.

* When INS cracks down on visiting students, colleges grumble because foreign students are an important source of income.

* About 20 countries have been granted visa waivers, exempting them from visas.

* Congress has not required airlines to participate in an automated system that would use airlines to issue electronic immigration "arrival cards" to foreign visitors at the same time they are issued airline boarding passes.

INS is on the verge of a major overhaul that would split it into a law enforcement bureau and a services bureau. One plan for overhaul was announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft Nov. 14. Another was introduced in Congress in early November.

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