State on track for biometrics

State Department officials will meet a fall deadline for a congressionally mandated program for issuing visas with biometric indicators, but a Government Accountability Office report indicated that federal officials haven't provided comprehensive guidelines for the program's use.

The GAO report today found State officials had installed program hardware and software at 201 of 207 overseas posts that issue visas for the Biometric Visa Program. Installation at the remaining six posts will completed by the end of September.

The $162 million program is designed to work with the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program to verify identities of people entering the United States.

Both programs rely on DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT, which is a database of fingerprints and digital photographs of people who have entered the country since January 2004, have applied for visas since September 2003 or are on watch lists.

When a person applies for a visa at a U.S. consulate, officials take a fingerprint scan, which is transmitted through State servers to DHS' IDENT system and then a response is returned. The process takes as little as 30 minutes or as much as 24 hours if a human expert is needed to verify matches, according to the GAO report.

However, although the implementation of the biometric technology has progressed smoothly, GAO officials said specific guidance isn't given to consular officials about using the system to adjudicate visas.

"In the absence of such guidance, officers may be unclear on how to optimize use of the IDENT information provided in this program," said Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers, GAO's managing director of International Affairs and Trade, testifying before the House Government Reform Committee today.

The report said investigators found several significant differences in the implementation of the biometric program in several overseas consulates.

However, Janice Jacobs, State's deputy assistant secretary for visa services, said some of the issues raised in the report dealt with procedural questions that were still being worked out.

"One of the questions was getting the results of the IDENT check back before an interview seemed to be important to the GAO investigators," she testified before the House Government Reform Committee today. "As we explained in our response no visa can be issued until the results have been looked at by the adjudicating officer. And so it would be nice to have the information but sometimes given that the way the system is set up and works that's not always possible."

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