Panel hears views on biometric passports, other ideas

U.S. citizens should not be exempt from carrying biometric passports or other means of verifying their identities, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said Thursday in his capacity as vice chairman of the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, he also urged the federal government to set standards for issuing identification documents such as birth certificates and driver's licenses.

The hearing focused on the future of the FBI, border security and the anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act, and intelligence experts reported on their efforts to make improvements over the past three years. As Congress considers the so-called 9/11 Commission's recommendations, average citizens soon may be impacted.

"We need a biometric system that is comprehensive," Hamilton said. Border agents must be able to access information to verify passports immediately, he said.

He said the al Qaeda terrorist network exploited U.S. systems to enter the country, noting that their tactics included making false statements on visa applications, breaking immigration laws, and providing false employment and education information. Had intelligence systems been in place in 2001, as many as 15 of the 19 hijackers could have been detected, Hamilton said.

Despite efforts to build a national terrorist watch list, there is no standard among intelligence agencies for entering data such as names, birth dates and nationality on suspected terrorists, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. And for people whose information is accidentally added to existing watch lists, confusion remains on actions they can take to be removed from the lists.

Kennedy, who recently was delayed in boarding a flight from Washington to Boston because his name was added to a watch list, found it difficult to have his name removed. "I've made this same flight for 42 years," he joked. Even after a formal apology from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Kennedy said he was delayed again.

"It is important for the average citizen to know how to deal with the process," said Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security. While there is a process to fix it, he said, his department "needs to own the no-fly list."

Kennedy questioned the commitment of the commission to recommend a civil-liberties watchdog for the intelligence community. "We are very serious," Hamilton said. Citing "very classified documents," Hamilton said there have been "astounding intrusions into the lives of Americans."

The commission also reviewed the British Security Service, known as MI-5, but failed to recommend it as a model for the United States because of concern over civil liberties. The FBI is now moving the right direction, Hamilton said.

Maureen Baginski of the FBI reported communications and intelligence-sharing improvements. She said agents can send e-mails with ease across a private network; a joint-intelligence database is now accessible; and portions of the Trilogy "virtual case file," which has come under intense scrutiny for being behind schedule and over budget, may be closer to rollout.