U.S. Senate looks to IT for terrorism prevention

A U.S. Senate subcommittee Friday heard how technology could be employed to help prevent future terrorist attacks. While cutting-edge devices such as facial recognition monitors and retinal scanners were discussed, pointed questions from committee members revealed that what’s needed most is one of the fundamental advantages that IT offers – information sharing.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, questioned officials with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of State about shortcomings in the country’s visa and immigration systems that were exploited by at least some of the people behind the Sept. 11 attacks involving four hijacked airplanes.

Representatives from both agencies admitted that many federal IT systems lack information sharing capabilities – sometimes even within one organization – and that, in part, enabled the hijackers to enter the country with valid visas. Some of them remained in the country after their visas expired.

“There are lots of different systems at INS and they are in stove-pipe form,” said James Ziglar, commissioner of the Justice Department’s U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), who was appointed just one month before the September attacks. “But that’s not going to be true for long.”

The department began overhauling its entire information infrastructure in October 2000 and plans to complete it in the first half of next year, he said.

Just mandating that integrated systems and accessible databases are implemented across all the federal agencies involved in preventing terrorism isn’t enough, said Mary Ryan, assistant secretary for consular affairs with the Department of State.

“We’re only as good as the information that goes into the systems,” she said. “We must have more information sharing.”

Some of those believed to be responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks entered the U.S. with legitimate visas because her department had no information on the individuals from law enforcement or intelligence agencies, she said.

Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, asked what technology recommendations the panel would make to Tom Ridge, the recently appointed director of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, who is in charge of coordinating antiterrorism efforts among federal agencies. Without offering specifics, Glenn Fine, inspector general with the Department of Justice, stressed that whatever infrastructure is put in place has to be shared.

“Unless you have data from all agencies in one place, you’re never going to identify people who are potential threats,” he said.

Two technology companies saw this disarray of government systems as an opportunity. Oracle Corp.’s chairman Larry Ellison spent time with Feinstein and Kyl Thursday and offered to donate free licenses for Oracle software to be used in building a national identification database, Feinstein said at the hearing. The company also offered to devote 1,500 engineers to creating the database, which would integrate with existing federal agency applications, she said.

The other, NEC Corp., was represented on a second witness panel during the hearing by officials who proposed to build systems for biometrically enabled passports, visas, and port-of-entry systems. For example, passports could be issued as smart cards that carry identification and biometric information to be matched with border systems, and port-of-entry systems would include a fingerprint database of known or suspected terrorists and a fingerprint scanner at the location.

The Senate Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information is at http://judiciary.senate.gov/subcom107a.htm/.

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