US-VISIT tests of limited value, GAO finds

The Homeland Security Department should incorporate more than the results of two recent pilot programs to decide whether and how to pursue a biometric-based air exit system for non-U.S. citizens.

Recent efforts by the Homeland Security Department to test options for a system that would electronically collect fingerprints from foreign visitors as they depart from U.S. airports had limited value, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a report released Aug. 10, GAO said the results of DHS’ pilot programs were of limited use because they didn’t test a scenario in which the airlines, rather than the government, collect biometric data. GAO said no airline was willing to participate in the tests. The tests also didn’t collect data on the security of information gathered as lawmakers expected they would, GAO concluded.

Congress requested that DHS test the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology's exit system, and in response, DHS tested scenarios under which the Transportation Security Administration and the Customs and Border Protection agency collected fingerprints from noncitizens departing from U.S. airports. A Bush administration proposal that would have required commercial air carriers to collect exit information at airports stalled after it met resistance from the airline industry and some governments.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is in the process of making a decision about whether to pursue the program, which could have an overall cost to government and industry of $3 billion to $9 billion over 10 years.

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GAO said the results of the recent tests shouldn’t be the only factor in that decision. The tests weren’t conducted in accordance with the project evaluation plan’s stated purpose of operationally evaluating the air exit requirements, and the plan didn’t include relevant project guidance, GAO auditors concluded.

“Collectively, these limitations in the [tests'] scope, approach, and reporting restrict the [tests'] ability to inform a decision for a long-term air exit solution and highlight the need for compensating sources of information on air exit’s operational impacts,” the report states.

GAO recommended that Napolitano identify other sources of information in making her decision on whether and how to pursue the air exit program. DHS officials responded by saying they concurred with that recommendation and the tests were never intended to be the sole source of information for the department’s decision. Napolitano has not said when she will make her decision.

In 2007, Congress gave DHS a deadline of June 30, 2009, to put the exit system in place. DHS missed that requirement and, as a result, lost authority to add some countries to the government’s Visa Waiver Program.

Kimberly Weissman, a spokesperson for the US-VISIT program, said the results of the exit tests are one of many sources being reviewed before DHS makes a decision on the exit program.

”DHS tried to implement the biometric air exit [tests] in a way that would not disrupt travelers and air carriers but would still get relevant information needed for an objective evaluation,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Based upon the exit evaluation report and other information provided — comments from the [the notice of proposed rule-making released during the Bush administration], stakeholder feedback, internal deliberations — [Napolitano] will make a decision on how best to implement a biometric air exit program.”

Weissman added that the department is working with “Congress and many stakeholders to determine the costs and benefits of implementing a biometric air exit program.”

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