Senate panel complains of slow progress at DHS on biometric exit tracking

Lawmakers grilled officials on the slow pace of progress in setting up a system to gather details on foreign visitors when they leave the U.S.

Twenty years ago, Congress mandated the collection of biometric data from travelers leaving the U.S. The system still is not in place, and the Department of Homeland Security  -- which didn't exist when the law was passed  -- got an earful from a Senate panel about the lengthy and repeated delays in implementing a biometric exit tracking system.

"If Disneyland can do this, then the federal government ought to be able to do it," Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Texas) told the witnesses at a Jan. 20 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and The National Interest.

The 9/11 Commission recommended the implementation of a biometric entry-exit screening system, which was already legally mandated in a 1996 immigration law. Such a system would gather and screen biometric data from foreign nationals upon their departure from the U.S. An entry system, under which biometric data is checked against criminal and terrorist watchlists and criminal databases, is in place.

John Wagner, Customs and Border Protection's deputy assistant commissioner for field operations, said it is less of a technology challenge than an infrastructure and cost issue. He noted it would take billions of dollars to give CBP officers mobile handheld devices to help facilitate such exit tracking, and the creation of individual biometric exit facilities at every gate in every airport and other departure point would be prohibitively expensive.

"It's not feasible and it's not going to work," Wagner told the committee.

According to DHS, a system for biometric exit will require technology that doesn't yet exist. "DHS has concluded that a viable biometric exit solution depends on leveraging emerging technologies to innovate ways of processing passengers biometrically," the agency said in prepared testimony attributed to the three agency officials that appeared at the hearing.

Rebecca Gambler, who covers homeland security issues for  the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers that DHS has "faced long-standing challenges in making progress." At the same time, Gambler noted, DHS has missed a number of its own milestones.

"We have not yet seen a plan from the department on biometric exit," she said

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the committee's ranking member, told the witnesses, "knowing who is coming into the country and knowing who is going out is a matter of national security. Plain and simple"

Wagner, however, argued that DHS is able to thwart terrorist attacks without a biometric exit system. He cited the Times Square bomber attempt as an example of one where existing departure records did help. And he noted the developments made so far at some airports including facial recognition technology and mobile biometric capability.

When asked on a specific goal date by lawmakers on the implementation of the exit system, Wagner said there is none -- but that he is hopeful it will not take decades.

"I do share frustration on how long this is taking, "Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, "I think it's time to move forward here."


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