INS lab tracks down the unusual suspects

In the 1942 film 'Casablanca,' Peter Lorre as Ugarte hands stolen travel documents to Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, whispering, 'Letters of transit signed by Gen. de Gaulle himself. Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.'

The film is a classic, to be sure, but Pete Riley, senior intelligence officer with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services' Forensic Document Laboratory, takes issue with this scene.

'There are no documents that can't be questioned,' Riley said. In fact, it's his lab's job to do just that.

Officials at ports of entry examine tens of thousands of travel documents daily, said Jim Hesse, acting director of the laboratory. Only 2 percent of individuals seeking entry to the country are pulled aside for a more detailed inspection of their documents.

Inspectors scrutinize the documents to determine if they are stolen, forged or altered. Intelligence officers and forensic examiners at the laboratory use high-tech equipment to compare suspect documents with authentic ones. Some devices they use are:
  • Photophones, which send images of documents from ports of entry to the laboratory

  • Video spectral comparators, which forensic examiners use to inspect documents under infrared or ultraviolet light

  • Electrostatic detection apparatus, which lets examiners check marks on documents that are invisible to the naked eye.

The lab handles about 5,000 cases every year, and examiners often must appear in court to testify in criminal trials about the authenticity of documents. The lab also receives thousands of less elaborate inquiries.

The immigration bureau plans to expand the laboratory's staff from 32 to 65 employees to increase its capacity and reduce its backlog of cases, Hesse said.

Rich resources

The forensic examiners rely on the laboratory's vast collection of reference passports, visas, visa stamps, embossed stamps, driver's licenses, birth certificates and other identity and travel documents to compare with suspect documents. The laboratory maintains an inventory of more than 100,000 such documents and stamps.

For the past three years, the lab has been building and expanding a database of its travel documents called the Immigration Image Document Exemplars and Library (IDEAL). Riley designed the database with help from engineers from Management Systems Designers Inc. of Vienna, Va.

'We have gone into every passport and every document, identified it, bar coded it and scanned it,' Riley said.

The system uses Kodak Imaging Professional software as the front end for an Oracle 7.0 database management system, Riley said. Management Systems Designers wrote additional code for the system in Visual Basic. The system operates over a LAN that connects the forensic examiners' desktop PCs to the database 'so everybody can search documents, and we can keep tight inventory control,' Riley said.

The system's search engine categorizes documents into about 60 types, including birth and death certificates, divorce papers, passports, nonimmigrant visas and Social Security cards.

System users select the document type, then go to the search screen, which lets them specify the country, date and vintage of document to display. The system also categorizes documents by whether they are genuine, counterfeit, altered or unverified.

Upside-down and up close

'What we do is very visual,' Riley said. The system displays documents so that inspectors can flip them from front to back and magnifies identifying marks that governments use as security measures.

One segment of the database keeps records of embossed seals, which do not show up in direct light on a page. To reveal them, the system uses an oblique light function that lets examiners check for minute differences among seals, and between authentic and bogus seals.

IDEAL also keeps a record of intelligence reports about stolen passports and other documents that examiners and intelligence officers can use in their research, Riley said.

The system uses an image server and an archive server, both 400-MHz Dell PowerEdge 2300 units, and a Hewlett-Packard SureStore 160 EX optical jukebox to store images. When forensic examiners or intelligence agents remove documents from the inventory for inspection, IDEAL keeps track of where the documents are. Each user has a bar code ID they use to check out documents.

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