DHS Special Report | Who's Who at the Border
Targeting center system applies modeling technology to data culled from multiple agencies
- By Rob Thormeyer
- Jun 17, 2006
WHO GOES THERE? The Homeland Security Department launched US-VISIT, a program using biometric technologies, to enhance the nation's security and facilitate travel in 2004. This test was at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
As a car creeps toward the U.S. border, a computer, gathering data via
cameras and using modeling technology, sends an alert to a patrol officer.
Drawing on information from multiple
Homeland Security Department agencies'
data such as the car's make, model,
license plate, location and time of day'
the software predicts whether the car is
likely to contain undocumented persons
or counterfeit goods hidden in the trunk.
The information is quickly processed
and presented to the border guard, who
can then determine'before the car reaches
the gate'whether to take further action
based on the analysis.
This predictive modeling technology,
which DHS' Customs and Border Protection's
National Targeting Center is still
rolling out, can lead to the arrest of undocumented
persons and seizure of illegal
goods at land borders. Officials declined
to discuss specifics about the modeling
Casting a wide net
DHS officials say the scenario is one of
many examples of how the agency, despite
its struggles, has quietly put together a
wide-reaching net of screening and targeting
programs, working not only within its
several internal organizations'such as
CBP, the Coast Guard and Citizenship and
Immigration Services'but with other
agencies such as the Justice and State departments.
Through internal programs such as the
targeting center, the Automated Commercial
Environment, and the U.S. Visitor
and Immigrant Status Indicator System,
and intergovernmental initiatives
such as Justice's Terrorist Screening Center,
DHS is breaking down the stovepipes
of its agencies, the officials said. And it is
also helping remove long-standing bureaucratic
silos that have, in the past, prevented
intelligence and security agencies
'We've made unbelievable strides ... and
our ability to team with other agencies has
really grown exponentially,' said Charles
Bartoldus, executive director of national
targeting and screening for CBP.
Scott Hastings, CIO of U.S. Visit, agreed:
'We are seeing very large initiatives taking
big chunks out of the connect-the-dot
For example, two DHS flagship programs'
U.S. Visit and ACE'operate on
the same network and share the same infrastructure
and routers. A separate initiative,
the Terrorist Screening Center, houses
employees from several different agencies.
And some officials, such as Bartoldus,
serve on steering committees for other
projects. In Bartoldus' case, he is a member
of ACE's board of directors.
'This is really the leader as far
as information sharing,' said
Donna Bucella, director of TSC.
'This is one place where the rubber
meets the road and is useful.'
In practice, the targeting center
and the Terrorist Screening Center
offer perhaps the best models
of technology and interoperability
NTC, established just after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
and later rolled into DHS, targets
suspicious people and cargo
entering and leaving the country.
It uses data gathered from CBP's
cargo and trade processing system,
the Automated Commercial
Environment, U.S. Visit and the
National Counterterrorism Center's
classified Terrorist Identities
The information is fed into
NTC's Automated Targeting
System, a program responsible
for risk assessment at the borders.
With predictive modeling technology,
the center's officials use
the targeting system to determine
if a car trying to cross the border
likely contains undocumented people or a
shipment coming into a seaport contains
Bartoldus expects ATS-Land to finish its
deployment to all land border points in
the country by the end of June. The agency
also is launching a pilot at seaports this
summer that will track counterfeit goods
coming into the country, he said.
'With predictive modeling, the
computer is not giving me the data
to analyze. It is the computer looking
at the data and saying, 'This
pattern follows a pattern I've seen
before,' ' Bartoldus said.
If the pattern warrants further
attention, NTC officials contact
other border security and law enforcement
personnel, such as the
Transportation Security Administration,
to determine the next
course of action, Bartoldus said.
'We're all working on the same
issues at the same time, but it's a
clear handoff,' he said.
One link in the communications
chain is the Terrorist Screening
Center, which maintains the government's
TSC director Bucella said her
shop uploads biographical information
from multiple agencies'
the Defense Intelligence Agency,
CIA, State Department, FBI and
DHS'and places it into the Terrorist
'We are a clearinghouse,' Bucella
said. 'What we do is ... connect up the
diplomatic world, the international intelligence
community, the law enforcement
community, and our state and locals.
Think of us as a facilitator.'
The list Bucella's shop maintains is more a
collection of 'supported systems''various
watch lists and databases including U.S.
Visit, the FBI's National Crime Information
Center, and the State Department's
Consular Lookout and Support System.
The screening center also has access to
the National Counterterrorism Center's
classified Terrorist Identities Datamart
Environment, a database that contains
names and biographical information of
suspected international terrorists.
'While our database is a list of just
names and identities, we also have the
supported systems to be able to dive into
those to find out 'Why is that person on
the list?' and 'Is the person that's currently
being confronted and encountered ... in
fact a person on the watch list?' ' she said.
The list is used when, say, a person applying
for a visa overseas triggers a hit on
State's Consular Lookout and
Support System. The consular
official is told to contact TSC
to determine whether that
person is actually the person
on the watch list and should
be denied entry, Bucella said.
Because TSC draws on information
from so many
agencies, the office is set up
like a central repository, with
several agencies loaning staff
to run the operation.
For example, although Bucella
is an employee of the
Transportation Security Administration,
she reports to FBI director
Robert Mueller III. Other staff members
come from DHS, State, Justice, Treasury
and, briefly, the Postal Service.
'This is the theory I use: Why don't you
come join us? We are the U.S. government,
and we're trying to coordinate the
government's approach, not one agency's
approach,' she said. 'Let's see if it's a useful
tool to have somebody here and also if
we need a relationship. ... Everybody
walks in here and they become a screening
center employee. They bring their expertise
from different agencies, but their
mission is the Terrorist Screening Center.'
And while TSC is the repository, the
agencies and programs it feeds also adhere
to the intergovernmental approach that
screening and targeting demands.
DHS' U.S. Visit, a flagship program
launched by former secretary Tom Ridge,
uses fingerprint data collected by CBP and
consular officials overseas to determine
whether certain people attempting to enter
the country are using fraudulent identities
or could be on various terrorist watch lists.
The program also is trying to keep better
track of visa overstays and whether
visitors are actually leaving the country
when their visas expire.
The system runs on the existing
Automated Biometric Identification
database, known at IDENT,
which currently collects two fingerprint
images. DHS checks
and verifies visa-seekers' fingerprints
against IDENT and databases
maintained by the FBI
and others to ensure that the
person is not on any terrorist or
criminal watch lists.
'Data sharing and interoperability
are key drivers for this
program,' Hastings said. 'We
see ourselves as a transformation
The program 'extends our
borders' to the overseas consular
offices, he said, because it
gives DHS officials a prescreening
tool that prevents an
individual on any terrorist or
criminal watch lists'once his
identity has been verified'
from entering the country.
Although he could not provide
specifics, Hastings said the
program has prevented murderers,
pedophiles, drug traf-
fickers and immigration violators from
crossing the border.
U.S. Visit also provides data to DHS' Immigration
and Customs Enforcement of-
fice on people who may have overstayed
their visa dates, Hastings said. 'For the
first time, we've taken enforcement actions
on overstays based on our system,' he
said. 'That's a pretty powerful indication'
of U.S. Visit's reach.
But here is where U.S. Visit runs into criticism,
because it has no way to tell when or
if people have left the country.
Hastings admitted the exit program still
has its work cut out for it: Although there
are 14 pilot programs at exit points
throughout the country, it is still little
more than an honor system.
'We're fully aware of the shortcomings,
and there are some issues DHS is looking
at seriously' to bolster the project, Hastings
At this point, the pilot system consists
mainly of an unmanned U.S. Visit kiosk at
an airport or another exit location where a
person signs in (or perhaps more appropriately,
checks out) and, presumably,
leaves the country.
'The only way you know where people
are is if they comply with' the exit program,
said Rich Pierce, executive vice
president of the National Border Patrol
Council, a union for border security
guards. 'Unless someone has been arrested
and fingerprinted previously, we can't
Jim Stolarski, program manager at Accenture Ltd.'s Smart Border Alliance,
which manages U.S. Visit, said that although
improvements are necessary, the
pilots have provided invaluable lessons
'The current solution, while imperfect, is
an improvement over nothing,' Stolarski
said. 'If we wait for the perfect solution,
what happens between then and now?'
Most officials and homeland security experts
agree that, at this moment, the infrastructure
for an effective exit system just
does not exist.
And with DHS secretary Michael
Chertoff focusing more on such new programs
as the Secure Border Initiative,
some experts wonder if U.S. Visit will ever
have an effective exit program.
'The biggest challenge with an
exit/entry system isn't the technology,'
said one industry official. 'The problem
is the amount of money and time that's
going to be required to have an effective
program.' For instance, the source said,
the systems must be durable enough to
withstand hostile conditions in the field.
GAO: Watch the exits
The Government Accountability Office
has pointed to the program's shortcomings
including its failure to find a sustainable
'They do have an entry and pre-entry
program,' said Randy Hite, GAO's director
for IT architecture and systems issues.
'They've created a deterrent effect for
keeping terrorists out of the country, and
that's good. But has it accomplished everything?
In particular, GAO in February found
that U.S. Visit has yet to implement a system
security plan or a privacy impact
statement'recommendations the congressional
watchdog agency made more
than two years ago. Also, GAO concluded
that DHS has not added cost-effective
controls to address risk and weigh the project's
As a result, the verdict on U.S. Visit is 'a
mixed bag,' Hite said. 'There's examples of
success, and there's examples of where
they haven't met commitments.'
Despite valid criticisms, U.S. Visit and
ACE have achieved some real success, at
least in part because they share the same
infrastructure, and many of the same principals
This interoperability has resulted in the
apprehension of suspected terrorists and
criminals, while at the same time maintaining
a constant flow of traffic and trade
at the borders, officials said.
'We give ourselves a pretty good report
card,' Hastings said.
Communications between the several
agencies, 'something that used to be very
complex, is resolved within minutes because
everyone knows their roles,' said