Senate panel slashes foreign visitor ID system

The Senate Appropriations Committee significantly cut the budget for the Homeland Security Department's program to electronically track when foreign travelers enter and leave the United States, fearing the system might not work as planned.

The committee's fiscal 2009 spending bill for DHS would provide $181.3 million for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, a 62 percent cut from the program's $475 million fiscal 2008 budget and 54 percent less than the $390 million that President Bush requested. The bill now heads to the Senate floor for a vote.

"That would be a major cut," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer for FedSources Inc., a federal consulting firm in McLean, Va. "The department may be anxious to move ahead with the program, but Congress is unsure whether there is a realistic possibility that the desired goals can be met on time. Until the possibility becomes a probability, the committee apparently sees no purpose in throwing money against the program."

The development of US VISIT began shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The idea was to use fingerprints to identify foreign visitors and to run the prints against government databases to check for known criminals and for names in a terrorist watch list. The system also was supposed to record when visitors entered and exited the country. The ability to check visitors' identities when they entered the country was completed in 2005, but the exit portion of the system has yet to be developed. Unlike the entry portion of US VISIT, no networks or processes exist to check foreign travelers as they leave the country. Developing the exit portion of the system is complicated, costly and involves the cooperation of airlines, which DHS has yet to secure. Government and industry sources who asked not to be identified called the reduction in funds a strong-arm tactic to punish the department for failure to deliver its fiscal 2008 spending plan to Congress on time. DHS did not deliver the plan, which Congress requires the Office and Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office to approve, until June 12. Congress is withholding $125 million until the fiscal plan is reviewed by GAO and approved by the appropriations committees, which "under the best of circumstances" would not be completed until September, according to a Senate Appropriations Committee report, which accompanied the bill.

"From the origins of the program, Congress has shown a deep interest in achieving the capabilities associated with US VISIT and has placed a lot of performance criteria on the program," Bjorklund said. "When the program and departmental officials don't respond to those criteria, it adds to Congress' skepticism about the ability to execute. There are certainly technical risks, [and] there are high expectations to meet scheduled milestones and [concern about] the program's complexity."

The Senate's frustration with the program increased after it was placed under the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which develops risk-mitigation strategies to protect programs that involve significant coordination and integration among federal, state and local agencies, and industry.

"The committee had hoped that a major corner had been turned with the US VISIT program when it appeared that new leadership within the National Protection and Programs Directorate understood the criticality of this program to be a robust and growing biometric identification and tracking system," the committee report stated. The committee provided no explanation for why it was concerned with the directorate's management of the program.

In the previous fiscal 2008 appropriations bill, the Senate initially allocated $362 million to US VISIT, a 22 percent reduction from the president's request. During conference, the budget request was restored and the conference added $13 million to expedite the development of an exit solution. DHS delayed the publication of a notice of proposed rule-making for the exit portion of the system for use in airports until April 22, 2008.

"As a result of the department's delay in submitting the fiscal year 2008 expenditure plan, the department has essentially made this program a forward funded account," the report noted, adding "a robust 'entry-exit' program must wait for the next administration to execute."

A spokesperson for US VISIT said the department was working with Congress to assuage concerns, noting that full funding was necessary to develop the ability of the system to collect and match 10 fingerprints at borders. The system was developed to collect and match two fingerprints, one from each index finger.

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