At Last, a DHS Exit System to Nab Potential Terrorists

Within the next 6 to 12 months, Homeland Security Department officials say they expect to have a long-awaited, instantaneous system for tracking foreigners who have overstayed their visits. Lawmakers have said such a tool is crucial for removing potential terrorists.

In 2002, DHS began to build a comprehensive entry and exit system for collecting biometric data from visitors traveling to the United States but nearly a decade later the exit part still doesn't exist.

Without an exit system, the department has encountered difficulty accurately identifying overstays, according to the Government Accountability Office. DHS estimates there were 36 overstays among the 400 people convicted through international terrorism-related investigations between September 2001 and March 2010. Five of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were overstays.

Those statistics may change if all goes according to plans that DHS officials outlined at a House hearing this week.

The department is looping together a multitude of databases operated by three DHS components and the intelligence community to more quickly see red flags. Once integrated, the systems maintained by Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US-VISIT will be able automate previously manual searches and cross-check those findings with law enforcement and intelligence data. In essence, the integrated app will generate an e-dossier on leads, testified John D. Cohen, DHS principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism.

"Instead of us being reactive," by screening an accumulated list of potential overstays, "CBP and the technologists will be developing essentially a hot sheet," he told members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. It "will essentially create a dashboard available to ICE, on a day to day basis, that will provide them with insights about those public safety and national security risks that are either overstays or existing visa holders."

At first, the application will not be the biometric one envisioned by authorities after 9/11. It will include biographic information and certain fingerprints from travelers entering the United States, and, with advances in research, gradually grow into a robust biometric system. "You have the foundation for a biometric exit capability of the future," Cohen said.

Already, the department has taken steps toward this goal by vetting a backlog of 1.6 million overstays, Cohen said.

In May, DHS officials began by scratching off names of people who had since left the country or changed immigration status. Then, they screened in-house law enforcement and immigration records, as well as intelligence holdings from the National Counterterrorism Center, to winnow the remaining 757,000 people to 2,000 high-risk individuals. Of those, some had died or since become part of an ongoing investigation, leaving several hundred potential leads.

Two months later, all of the previously un-reviewed overstay records had been analyzed from a national security and public safety perspective, Cohen said. ICE currently is pursuing suspects, he added.

"I cannot for one tell you how much better I feel now," said Subcommittee Chairman Candice Miller, R-Mich.

Not so, said GAO.

"If we're going to focus on the national security and public safety folks, which is the thing to start with -- it gives the impression that once you're in the country, you're in. Unless you act out," Richard M. Stana, GAO director for homeland security and justice issues, said at the hearing.

Omar Abdel-Rahman -- an overstay -- had no criminal record before he was arrested for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, noted.