Hill, Homeland Security trade barbs over border control tech

U.S. Visit 'integrates very few of the dozens of key federal databases and fails to provide the interoperability between agencies that is necessary to combat global terrorism,' Rep. Jim Turner wrote.

Henrik G. de Gyor

The Homeland Security Department's enterprise architecture and its plans for a border control system came under fire from legislative overseers last week.

The Government Accountability Office warned that the department's enterprise architecture is incomplete, and the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Select Committee condemned DHS' designs for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology virtual border system.

In response, DHS officials said the department's enterprise architecture is a work in progress that is due to be upgraded soon.

And undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson rejected Rep. Jim Turner's critique of U.S. Visit, saying DHS had made significant progress in building a layered approach to border security and launching a biometric border system for the first time.

GAO's study, Homeland Security: Efforts Under Way to Develop Enterprise Architecture, but Much Work Remains, evaluated the first version of the department's enterprise architecture, which DHS released last September [GCN, Sept. 1, 2003, Page 1]. Department officials consistently have said they plan to release a second version next month.

The GAO report noted that officials in the department's CIO office conceded that the first version was rough at best. DHS officials had taken parts of existing systems blueprints from the department's 22 component agencies and combined them to derive the first architecture.

'Such a development approach is not consistent with recognized architecture development best practices,' GAO said. As a result, the auditors said, 'DHS does not yet have the architectural content that it needs to effectively guide and constrain its business transformation efforts and the hundreds of millions of dollars it is investing in supporting systems.'

Without a proper architecture, DHS systems will be poorly integrated, overlapping, costly and ineffective, GAO warned.

'To their credit, the department's [CIO, Steve Cooper] and senior architecture officials recognize the architecture's limitations and are in the process of developing a new version,' according to the report.

The report noted that GAO analysts and department systems managers disagreed on significant details about how the systems blueprint should be evaluated and how the department should create a full-scale enterprise architecture.

Data sharing woes

On the Hill, Turner (D-Texas) leveled a blistering attack on the design for the U.S. Visit system in a letter to Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, released last week.

He wrote that an investigation by his staff revealed that U.S. Visit 'integrates very few of the dozens of key federal databases and fails to provide the interoperability between agencies that is necessary to combat global terrorism.'

He cited statements by the 9/11 Commission that the virtual border project is based on antiquated components that soon will have to be fully re-engineered.

Turner's seven-page letter went into detail about failings of the IDENT fingerprint database that plays a large part in U.S. Visit.

He charged that the IDENT system DHS uses to store and retrieve two-fingerprint records is incompatible with state, local and international fingerprint databases. The IDENT system also is incompatible with the FBI's 10-print fingerprint database, Turner said.

A DHS technical specialist said the compatibility issue arises from using either rolled fingerprints, as the FBI does, or the flat fingerprints that IDENT captures.

But the DHS official disputed Turner's analysis, saying that U.S. Visit already accesses some FBI 10-fingerprint files and strips off the eight unneeded prints before storing the two index fingerprints in IDENT. 'Is it easy? No. It's a technical challenge. But the systems are not incompatible,' the official said.

Hutchinson said U.S. Visit is designed to work with other components. 'U.S. Visit is not a standalone system'it will be part of a system of systems,' he said.

Turner insisted that Ridge provide a plan to integrate border databases and achieve interoperability, along with a cost estimate for the job. DHS now is preparing a detailed response to Turner's letter, officials said.

A DHS spokeswoman noted that U.S. Visit already had helped apprehend more than 950 travelers with criminal histories who tried to enter the United States.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above