Biometric visa program is a victim of its own success, report says

The State Department's rollout of technology to capture biometric data from visa applicants has progressed more quickly than expected and the department will meet its Sept. 30 deadline for deploying the systems at all 207 overseas posts, the Government Accountability Office reported today.

But the program's technical success has outpaced State's progress in adopting guidance for visa officers on how to use the system, GAO said.

State and the Homeland Security Department, which work together on the Biometric Visa Program, separately took issue with the GAO findings, saying that visa officers have received clear policy guidance.

The GAO report, State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on Schedule but Guidance is Lacking, noted that 201 of the posts had implemented the system as of Sept. 1. The other six posts are scheduled to receive the fingerprint scan systems by the end of September.

'Although the technology installation has progressed smoothly, DHS and State have not developed and have not provided comprehensive guidance that includes directions to consular officers on when in the visa process prints are to be scanned and when and how information from the IDENT database on visa applicants should be considered by visa officers,' GAO said.

The program relies on two-fingerprint scans that the system checks against DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System, known as IDENT, to pinpoint suspect travelers. The program's deployment is set to cost about $54 million for fiscal 2003 and 2004 and a further $108 million in 2005.

The Biometric Visa Program works in concert with DHS' U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, under which agents at domestic ports of entry check travelers' fingerprints against the IDENT database (GCN story).

GAO recommended that State and DHS create and distribute guidance on how to use the system for consular officers.

State said in written comments on the GAO report that its officials had issued 13 telegrams to all posts explaining the Biometric Visa program. 'The department intentionally allowed posts to use a variety of workflows to process biometric visas in order to allow consular managers flexibility to account for different staffing levels and workloads,' State said.

In its written comment on the GAO report, DHS said that different methods of organizing workflow at overseas posts would not compromise the program's goals.

In counterpoints to the departments' comments, GAO repeated its recommendation for additional guidance.


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