Watchdog finds gaps in DHS visitor tracking program

Officials at risk of repeating past failures unless they develop a more detailed plan for new, biometric-based system to record exits by air.

Despite "ample opportunity," the Homeland Security Department has failed to meet some congressional requirements and recommendations for a multibillion dollar system to track visitor entries and exits, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report (GAO-07-1065) stated that though DHS met some of the legislative mandates for the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, others in the department's fiscal 2007 spending bill went unfulfilled. Officials in charge of US VISIT -- conceived in 2004 to collect and share information on foreign nationals traveling to and from the United States - also have fallen short on implementing recommendations in previous GAO reports aimed at establishing program oversight capability.

The congressional requirements "need to be addressed quickly and completely," wrote Randolph Hite, GAO's director of information technology architecture and systems issues, in the report. He added that it is unclear why DHS has yet to fulfill them.

The program has encountered problems, particularly in its exit-tracking component, on which the department has spent $250 million to date. A system to record exits by land based on radio frequency identification chips embedded in immigration documents did not meet requirements under testing, and DHS officials said in 2006 that they could not implement a biometric-based system without huge costs and traffic delays.

The GAO report warned the department "runs the serious risk of repeating its past failures" because of a lack of detailed information about its plans for a new biometric-based exit system for airports. The department has issued a high-level schedule, but not detailed plans that define what will be done, by whom and at what cost, and compare the system's costs with its expected benefits and risks.

In response to the report, DHS officials framed past work on the exit component as pilot efforts intended to be valuable learning experiences rather than fully operational systems. Officials said the testing showed that the exit systems worked but the procedures did not, because, unlike with entry systems, there is no existing, exit infrastructure to which a biometric-based system can be added.

DHS plans to incorporate the exit component of US VISIT into the airline check-in process, program director Robert Mocny said in a June 28 hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. Mocny said DHS plans to publish a notice of proposed rule-making by the end of the year, and a final rule by June 2008.

But at land borders, DHS for now will use only biographic information and not a biometric-based exit system, which Mocny said would be too complex. Ninety-one percent of travelers from countries of interest enter the United States by air, according to Mocny.

The GAO report also criticized the department for spending too much on program management. In 2006, DHS spent $1.35 on US VISIT management for every dollar spent on new capabilities. The program's fiscal 2007 expenditure plan proposed spending $1.25 in management costs for every dollar on new development. The expenditure plan does not justify such a balance, the report said.

"On the basis of past efforts, there is no reason to believe that the program's disproportionate investment in management-related activities represents a prudent and warranted course of action," Hite wrote in the report.

The report also cited concerns over DHS' personnel capabilities. The US VISIT program's 115 governmental positions were filled at one point in 2006, but since then 21 -- including leadership positions -- have become vacant. DHS officials stated in response that as of mid-August, 90 of the positions were filled. Officials also said the vacancies were mitigated by a recruitment and retention program and an intern program.

GAO auditors did note that the program's 12 ongoing task orders are on schedule and within budget. This makes US VISIT somewhat unique among other large-scale federal programs at DHS and other departments, which have been roundly criticized for huge delays and cost overruns. The problems have been especially acute for lead systems integrator projects, in which a department selects a prime contractor not only to build the system but to manage it as well. So far the department has spent more than $1.3 billion on US VISIT and its prime contractor, Bermuda-based Accenture Ltd.