Congress withholds U.S. Visit funds

The Senate and House Appropriations committees must decide within weeks whether to release the bulk of the fiscal 2003 funds for the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system.

If lawmakers don't release the U.S. Visit funds before Sept. 30, the department will lose the money altogether for its border-crossing identification system. When approving the funds last year, lawmakers gave themselves authority to dole out the money based on whether they were satisfied with the project. So far, they have been less than pleased.

Earlier this year, the panels released $42 million of the funds, and on July 25 the appropriators sent a letter to DHS releasing an additional $75 million. The committees will decide soon whether to release the remaining $252 million, congressional sources said.

The General Accounting Office has noted weaknesses in U.S. Visit's project planning and management controls. In a recent report, GAO recommended that the department improve U.S. Visit's management controls and detailed plans for the system, its costs and its benefits.

DHS managers have challenged the auditors' views, saying GAO failed to take into account the project's architecture planning, IT security and pending decisions that could impact the plans.

Congressional sources said DHS officials must brief lawmakers by Sept. 4 about how they will use the remaining funds.

Spending plan

Program managers have said they want to spend much of the 2003 funding on biometric devices for the nation's air and sea ports.

Meanwhile, the department has continued to add staff to the U.S. Visit program office. It now has one contract and 10 government employees on the U.S. Visit team. Current plans call for the project to expand to 115 government employees and 117 contractors, for a total staff of 232.

The department's Customs and Border Protection Bureau recently assigned a senior executive, P.T. Wright, to the U.S. Visit program.

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