INS broadens fingerprint scanning

This summer, the Immigration and Naturalization Service plans to begin using electronic fingerprint scanners to check the identities of tens of thousands of foreign visitors as they arrive at airports in the United States.

The fingerprints of visitors will be compared to databases of fingerprints of known and suspected criminals and terrorists in an effort to intercept terrorists trying to enter the country, Attorney General John Ashcroft said June 5.

A smaller version of the system is already quietly at work at several U.S. airports, Ashcroft said. Since January, the INS has caught an average of 67 people each week whose fingerprints matched those in the databases. About 1,400 individuals have been apprehended, Ashcroft said during an announcement of plans to expand the system to all airports where foreigners arrive.

The fingerprint scanners and fingerprint databases are one part of a three-element National Security Entry/Exit Registration System that Ashcroft has ordered to begin keeping better track of foreign nationals who are in the United States.

Besides fingerprinting tens of thousands of arriving visitors, Ashcroft said some foreign visitors also will be photographed. Aliens who are deemed to pose a potential threat to national security will also be required to register with the INS after they have been in the United States for 30 days, and once a year thereafter. And certain visitors will be required to notify the INS when they depart.

The names of those who fail to register will be entered into a nationwide police database, increasing the chances they will be discovered during minor encounters with police, such as during a traffic stop.

And those who fail to notify the INS of their departure will be ineligible to re-enter the United States, Justice Department officials said.

The fingerprinting part of the plan, in particular, is consistent with a Justice Department effort to better employ technology in the war against terrorism.

"We have the technical capability to do this," Ashcroft said. "We need to deploy this as soon as possible to protect American lives."

At the airports where the system is already being used, scanning fingerprints of arriving visitors and comparing them to fingerprints stored in databases takes about three minutes, Ashcroft said.

Initially, at least, only a fraction of the foreign visitors would be subject to fingerprint scans. "We don't have the capacity to get fingerprints from all" visitors, a senior Justice Department official said. "That takes an enormous amount of infrastructure, and we don't have it."

Visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria all would be fingerprinted. Those countries are considered sponsors of terrorism.

Beyond those visitors, the Justice Department is developing "criteria" that INS inspectors will use to decide which visitors must undergo fingerprint checks.

The collection of fingerprints of suspected terrorists has "increased substantially" in the months since U.S. troops began operating in Afghanistan, Ashcroft said. U.S. personnel have recovered many latent fingerprints from captured al Qaeda documents and objects, he said. Those are fingerprints without a name, Ashcroft said. They are now stored in a database and are presumed to be the fingerprints of terrorists. If visitors entering the United States have fingerprints that match, "we won't have a name, but we will have a body," Ashcroft said.

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