Crash program

Thomas R. Temin

As everyone now knows, the Immigration and Naturalization Service last month sent student visas for two dead Sept. 11 terrorists to their Florida flight school. And, as GCN's Wilson P. Dizard III reported in our April 1 issue, INS was already in the process of accelerating plans to build its entry-exit data system. Agency critics say it might have alerted someone to these people.

That point is debatable because, as George Bohlinger, INS' executive associate commissioner for the Office of Management, has noted, each time ringleader Mohamed Atta left and returned to the United States he did so legally. Nevertheless, agency leadership is not absolved from solving an underlying problem, namely, the nearly complete lack of interoperability among government databases.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) recently said that, because of poor systems, the FBI doesn't know what it knows. Well, neither do INS or the State Department, which actually issues visas.

While you can't blame any single agency for the inability to track aliens and their activities, agencies all suffer from the same systemic weaknesses. True, too, is that the most up-to-date systems can only embody the rules allowed by policy-makers. If, for example, the nation is squeamish about paying special attention to the comings and goings of young men from Egypt or Saudi Arabia, then don't blame INS for the next Mohamed Atta.

Nevertheless, building data-sharing tools should be a pedal-to-the-metal crash project. If I were president, I would put program and IT officials from the FBI, CIA, State Department and INS into a room and lock the doors until they have a request for proposals for an interoperability plan that's deployable in 90 days.

Software vendors and integrators wouldn't be off the hook. Many claim to offer panaceas for dissolving stovepipe systems. Let's hear their proposals.

President Bush has said repeatedly that the war on terrorism will be long and have many fronts. This piece of e-government is literally a matter of life and death.

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